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Local school bus companies struggle with driver shortages

By Heather Graves
Staff Writer

BROWN COUNTY – Thousands of students throughout the Greater Green Bay area rely on a school bus to get them to and from school every day.

Filling the driver seats has proved difficult as local companies struggle with staffing shortages.

“Absolutely, there is a school bus driver shortage,” Kobussen Buses Owner Dan Kobussen said. “Yes, that is true. But I think everyone is seeing a shortage of employees in general. The major difference is with a school bus, we have to have a person in every school bus. We can’t go short.”

Kobussen said other employers can be creative in bridging vacancy gaps, something bus companies are unable to do.

“The local restaurant, they do double shifts or people wait longer to get their food,” he said. “It just works that way. We can’t do that. We have to have a bus for every student.”

Kobussen Buses provides bussing for the Seymour School District, along with several other districts throughout the state.

The shortages, Kobussen said, are felt everywhere.

“A good number to me is always 20% (across the board with shortages),” Kobussen said. “We have some places that are OK. We have places that are really short.”

Cindi Lawler, school bus operations manager at Lamers Bus, said its five area hubs are dealing with the same staffing gaps, which has forced them to become creative in how routes are covered.

“We are covering with substitute drivers – office staff, mechanics – we typically license anyone we can,” Lawler said. “And everyone is driving every day, morning and afternoon.”

She said each terminal varies, but all have some needs.

“I would say all terminals are looking for at least a dozen drivers to put us into a much more comfortable situation,” she said.

Lawler said Lamers is always hiring bus drivers.

“Truthfully, it seems like we never have enough drivers, because there is also charter work to be done – transportation, athletes and field trips and things like that,” she said. “Believe me, we really never stop hiring.”

Lawler said the Green Bay hubs consistently collaborate with each other, as well as with some Fox Valley locations.

Spokesperson Jen Biddinger said First Student, another local bus company, is experiencing staff shortages in the Green Bay area, but is making progress in filling open positions.

“We do have driver candidates in various stages of training and hope to add them to our workforce in the coming weeks,” Biddinger said.
She said a starting wage increase to $20 an hour and a $1,500 sign-on bonus has helped First Student’s recruitment efforts.

Attracting drivers

Social media, billboards, radio ads, word-of-mouth, door hangers, job fairs, open houses, flyers, sign-on bonuses – bus companies are doing it all.

“We are doing everything we can (to attract new drivers),” Kobussen said. “Sign-on bonus is up to $2,200 and a referral bonus of $500. And we’ve raised our pay rates, we start at $19 an hour now.”

Lawler said Lamers starts drivers out at $20 an hour, but it can be more if they have experience.

“We have three pay levels here in the Green Bay area,” she said. “So we can escalate levels if they have large vehicle experience.”

She said instead of sign-on bonuses, Lamers offers a monthly safety and attendance bonus to its drivers.

“It is a monthly safety and attendance bonus that pays out and drivers can earn up to $1,800 for the school year,” she said. “And every driver qualifies for that. So, it isn’t just the new person coming in the door. Every person here that puts on miles every day, they are all qualified for that bonus.”

Lawler said part of the sell is promoting the position’s benefits.

“If there are people out there even thinking about it and might have an interest in it, definitely contact your local terminal,” she said. “And this is something that it really doesn’t matter where you might move to, or what you might move onto, it is also a marketable skill. They are always looking for drivers with a CDL.”

Kobussen stressed the job’s flexibility.

“Routes only run during the school year,” he said. “If a parent wanted to come and drive, they can still be home on those days off of school. We also allow parents to take their children along on the bus, instead of going to daycare.”

Kobussen said the company works with specific interests and atypical schedules.

“We also have lots of opportunities for extracurricular-type trips,” he said. “So, if a person just wanted to drive in the afternoon and take kids to the basketball game, football games, baseball games, we have those specific positions available also. Or, if they just wanted an a.m. route or just a p.m. route. Let’s say they shift work and let’s say they can work one week on, one week off, we will work around that as well.”

Lawler said sometimes the bus itself can shy people away from applying.

“One of the big ones for people is they are afraid of the vehicle,” she said. “They think it is going to be really hard to drive the bus. I know that was a concern of mine when I started driving years ago.”

She said interested drivers are able to sit in one of the buses and get a feel for the vehicle to address some of those concerns.

“What we do now is if people express an interest and come in, we talk about the driving with them and then we give them the opportunity to get out in the bus,” Lawler said. “We take them out and give them an opportunity to handle the vehicle in the lot and see how friendly they are to drive. Nowadays, they all have power steering, they are all automatic transmissions. They are very comfortable to drive. So big strides have been made over the years with that fear.”

She said in the grand scheme of things, the smallest part of what drivers are doing is handling the vehicle.

First Student bus driver Holly Mader said she had reservations about being able to handle the bus.

“I’ve heard many people say that they could never be a bus driver or handle a vehicle like that, especially full of kids,” Mader said. “You may surprise yourself. I sure did. I didn’t think this was up my alley either.”

She said the need for a little extra income and signs plastered everywhere regarding the need for drivers, pushed her to start last fall.

“I like kids and with having four boys, myself, it just seemed to make sense,” she said. “The training was really great. The pay is great for a part-time job and they are faithful with the sign-on bonuses.”

Mader said there are some things drivers learn only from experience.

Now in her second year, she said it surprises her how much she’s grown to love it.

“You end up loving these kids, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the good rapport that is built between a driver and student in such a short amount of time,” she said. “I have found it to be a very rewarding job.”

Mader said she has felt the shortage issue in terms of more driving.

“I am driving more than I was in the spring,” she said. “Although, I am still fairly new and came on while the schools were mostly online, so I don’t have a long-term reference point.”

As a parent, however, Mader said she has seen the effects of the shortage even more.

“I have felt the shortage as a parent with kids in sports,” she said. “Parents are having to transport their kids after school to meets and games that they typically would ride a bus to.”

Lawler said though every path is different, it typically takes new drivers an average of three to four weeks to go from hire to route.

“It is an individual thing,” she said. “It is the same process when you get your car license. You have to study the materials. There are knowledge tests that you take at the DMV.”

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