Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Driver Shortage Has Districts Spinning Their Wheels Officials Are Raising Wages and Offering Better Perks in a Bid to Keep Drivers on a Tough Job

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Driver Shortage Has Districts Spinning Their Wheels Officials Are Raising Wages and Offering Better Perks in a Bid to Keep Drivers on a Tough Job

Article excerpt

Precocious students in the wealthy suburbs west of Austin, Texas, have been known to form chess clubs in the past. But this September, their match play in after-school hours was less the result of intellectual curiosity than of simply making the best of a bad thing.

They lingered at school because there were no bus drivers to take them home.

While the children played chess or went to the playground for soccer or poured over homework in makeshift study halls, the Eanes School District's severely understaffed bus fleets scrambled to drop off the first load of students so drivers could return to pick up the rest. "It gets a little worse each year," says Jerry Molinoski, assistant superintendent of the district that covers part of Austin and rolling subdivisions to the west. "We needed about 50 drivers at the beginning of this year. We were 23 drivers short." Severe shortages in the pool of drivers this fall have school district officials from coast to coast rushing to raise wages and benefits, even as they scour the local work force for anyone who can help. Detroit searches for local autoworkers who retired early and might want the extra cash. Atlanta raised pay dramatically. A suburban Denver county hopes a strict student discipline code will help keep its drivers from quitting what everyone agrees is a tough job. But exasperated administrators like Mr. Molinoski feel their normally hectic Septembers slipping into chaos as they are forced to think more about driver recruiting than student test scores. Split shifts, low wages Blue-collar workers have never flocked to school bus garages as their first choice for employment. Drivers must get up before dawn and work a split shift for about $9 an hour, submit to increasingly stringent skill and drug tests, and safely deliver a generation raised on Bart Simpson reruns. The humming US economy doesn't help matters. Many transport companies pay more for steadier hours, and managers compete in a labor pool where nearly everyone who wants work can find it. Meanwhile, the Texas student body grows by 86,000 kids a year. "So it's a combination of factors," Molinoski says. "Low unemployment, the student growth, and the split-shift issue." The Eanes district, with some of the highest test scores in the state, now offers free tuition for the children of drivers who come from outside the district, an enticing perk that can save employees $7,000 a year. John Shupe, who helps organize transportation for 90,000 students in the 34 districts of Wayne County surrounding Detroit, says the area faces a "critical shortage." Each of the 34 districts needs at least two more substitute drivers to fill out their rosters. …

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