School Bus Drivers (Desperately) Wanted
By Craig Manning | Oct. 23, 2019
With employers of all types having a hard time filling open positions, Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) is facing a serious bus driver shortage. According to Heather Soenksen, talent acquisition coordinator for the TCAPS human resources department, the district employs approximately 90-95 bus drivers; it needs 8-10 more.
Bus driver positions within TCAPS pay a starting wage of $14 an hour, with annual raises for the first five years. The wage peaks at $16.25.
TCAPS has launched several new initiatives to attract more candidates. A few years ago, the district implemented a tuition reimbursement program, which covers up to 50 percent of any college courses a bus driver completes successfully. And last year, the district launched a referral program, which compensates existing TCAPS employees if they can refer a new bus driver who drives for the district for at least 90 days.
TCAPS bus drivers can also earn what amounts to full-time employment benefits for part-time work. Any bus driver who works 22 hours a week – the equivalent of driving both a morning and afternoon bus route each day – is eligible for medical insurance, paid life insurance, and paid days off for illness, personal business, vacation, or bereavement.
Just recently, TCAPS rolled out two brand-new initiatives. The first is a two-tiered sign-on bonus system. Under the program, a new bus driver with TCAPS – even one with no commercial driver’s license (CDL) or any commercial driving experience – is eligible for an $800 sign-on bonus. The bonus amount goes up to $1,000 if the employee comes in with credentials.
The other new initiative is targeted toward candidates who have no bus driving experience but are still interested in the job. For these individuals, TCAPS not only offers paid training, but will also reimburse any fees associated with obtaining a CDL.
The Michigan Department of Education is helping things along with its “critical shortage list.” Signed into law in 2015 by former Governor Rick Snyder, the list “allows individuals who meet certain circumstances, to work in Michigan schools after retirement while mitigating the impact to retiree benefits from the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.” Soenksen says that, in most cases, retired public school employees are limited in their ability to come out of retirement without affecting the compensation they receive from their pension plan. The critical shortage list offers exceptions.
“Most retirees have a limitation where they can only earn 30 percent of their final average compensation,” Soenksen says. “This limit is in place for the retirees for their first year after retirement. Beyond that first year, eligible employees can work in critical shortage positions – such as bus driving – and they're not bound by that 30 percent limitation. So, bus driving is a great way for them to supplement their retirement income.”
TCAPS is also looking to attract freelancers, entrepreneurs, gig economy workers, or other locals with income gaps or irregular schedules. “This is a way for those individuals to work part-time, get full-time benefits, and still have the time to focus on their other businesses,” Soenksen says. “For instance, some of our farmers in the area will drive buses during the school year, and then they'll still have the summers off to focus on their farms.”
“We’re also trying to develop collaborative relationships with NMC and the Maritime Academy,” Soenksen adds. “We can give some of those students a chance to make a little money, get their CDL, and get tuition assistance toward their programs.”
Soenksen is hopeful these measures will help TCAPS meet its busing needs, but the battle is an uphill one. According to a nationwide survey from 2018, 91 percent of school districts say they have at least a “mild” bus driver shortage problem. Nearly a third of all districts rate their shortages as “severe” or “desperate.”
Bus driver pay has also skyrocketed, and is higher, on average, than what TCAPS is currently paying. Nationwide, the average starting pay per hour was $16.62 in 2018, up more than a dollar from the year before.
So far, the TCAPS shortage hasn’t entered into the “severe” or “desperate” range. Where some districts have had to resort to offering fewer bus routes, TCAPS has so far avoided that issue by calling on other district employees for help. Everyone who works in the TCAPS transportation department – including office employees and bus mechanics – has the credentials to drive a bus or cover a route. Several other TCAPS employees – such as Christine Thomas-Hill, associate superintendent of finance and operations – are also licensed.
“We do have individuals throughout the district who have those endorsements and who are always willing to step in if needed,” Soenksen said. “Ultimately, it’s about serving the needs of the students. We just want to be able to give those people the ability to do their actual jobs.”