While the bright, yellow school buses that transport students to their educational destination are hard to miss, it’s the drivers of those buses that have been hard to come by.
The Southern Oklahoma Technology Center has been facing a shortage of bus drivers to start the fall semester, with the school still being two drivers short of its needed amount of drivers. The career tech started the year with four drivers and have now reached six total drivers, though they are still two short of the optimal amount of drivers.
Jo Ann Simon, SOTC human resource director, said that the school has had to convert to other positions, a custodial position and a part time maintenance position, into bus drivers in order to accommodate for the need. She said that the qualifications needed to drive a bus has made the hiring process more difficult.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” Simon said. “It’s just like our everyday lives. It’s just become more complicated.”
Simon said in the late 1980s, a Commercial Driver’s License wasn’t required to drive a school bus, as drivers only needed a Commercial Chauffeur License in order to operate the buses. Today, drivers need either a CDL A or B and several endorsements in order to be a bus driver.
Larry Darter, the director of transportation at Springer Public Schools, has taught school bus driving courses for many years and served as a driving test examiner for 27 years. Darter said the change to a CDL requirement came in 1991 and that getting bus drivers has become increasingly difficult over the last five years.
“We’re not bus drivers anymore,” Darter said. “We’re truck drivers with an endorsement.”
Darter said by the time potential drivers go through the process, they have the qualifications to get a full-time truck driving job, as opposed to a part-time bus driving job. Both Darter and Simon said the benefits are a large part of what draws drivers away from driving the school buses.
“Benefits are the big thing. They’d have an easier time if they could offer benefits,” Darter said. “Some schools do pay benefits but it costs and right now we’re in a cutting phase, not a spending phase.”
Darter said before the changes, teachers, secretaries and maintenance staff would drive the buses in order to help with the need. Now, young drivers can’t make a living from driving a school bus so typically drivers are now retired truck drivers or school staff who are able to get the certifications. The number of drivers though has been severely cut over the last few years.
“We just don’t have the volume we used to have,” he said. “We try to get school employees to go, but it’s just gotten harder to drive a bus.”
Darter said in addition to the additional requirements, the test has changed dramatically over time. The test used to be about 20 minutes, though now it averages about 2 hours. He said being qualified to drive a school bus mixes the challenge of driving a truck or semi, but with the added difficulty of transporting children.
“It’s not like driving cargo, it takes more attention and patience,” he said. “To pass the test they (drivers) got to know the bus end to end.”
While Darter said the changes that have been made are great for ensuring maximum safety, they have brought additional challenges to schools and districts that need drivers desperately.
Simon said in order to combat the issue at SOTC, members of the staff have had to drive buses including the director of facilities, coordinator of facilities and several of the maintenance staff.
“We’ve had to pull those people out of their daily jobs to drive a bus,” she said.  “Somebody on staff is going to have to drive these buses.”
During the SOTC Board of Education regular meeting on Aug. 19, the board approved increasing the starting part-time bus driver’s pay from $14 an hour to $17.50 an hour. In addition, the board increased the pay of current bus drivers by $3.50 an hour, effective Sept. 1. Simon said the increases are to attract people to apply for the positions. She said the two buses that currently have other staff driving affects two to four schools due to their routes, though she said SOTC has taken actions to ensure those schools are not affected by the shortage.
“We are going to get to those schools,” she said. “That’s our number one priority is our students.”
Simon said she hopes the increase in pay will lure in potential drivers to apply and allow members of the staff who have had to drive buses to return to their full time duties.
“Hopefully we can attract some people and find someone to drive the buses.”