NBC15 Investigates: Bus Driver Shortage

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WAUNAKEE, Wis. (WMTV) - School bus routes are busy, but the number of drivers is low, forcing some companies to depend on substitute drivers to fill in.

With so much pressure to find drivers, NBC15's Hannah Anderson looked into the hiring process to make sure companies and districts aren't cutting corners to fill the seats.

Each school day bus driver Debra Oldenhoff starts her shift in Waunakee, Wis.

"I want them [the children] to know they're greeted with happiness," Oldenhoff said. "We're the first people they see, and we're the last they see before they go home."

For twenty years, safety for the children has been Oldenhoff's priority.

"You're multitasking. You have to make sure the kids are safe," Oldenhoff said. "You're stopping safe, the other traffic around you, all in all, it's patience."

Oldenhoff said bus drivers are in high demand.

"Nobody wants to be a driver anymore," Oldenhoff said. "You will never be without work that's for sure."

Even a 20-hour a week schedule, $17 an hour wage, and a $1,600 signing bonus, Lamers in Waunakee doesn't get enough applicants.

"It's extremely important to get solid people," Lamers Assistant Manager Tom Ludlow said.

Ludlow has picked up shifts from time to time to cover routes.

"We're not willing to relax our standards," Ludlow said.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles, 2017 saw the lowest number of school bus drivers in the last decade, which showed 2,000 fewer drivers than in 2008.

The DOT Exec Office of Public Affairs released the numbers of licensed school bus drivers from the DMV:

2017: 14,730
2016: 15,883
2015: 16,039
2014: 15,469
2013: 15,520
2012: 15,870
2011: 16,140
2010: 15,987
2009: 16,154
2008: 16,868

Ludlow said background checks and drug tests are not the roadblock for new potential applicants. It's the process to get a commercial drivers license.

"There are a lot of hurdles to jump through," Ludlow said.

To get a Commercial Drivers License, a person has to pass a criminal background check, a DOT-approved physical and pass four written tests. After that part of the process, the applicant can begin practice driving in an empty bus.

"Don't know what more you could add to make it stricter so that nobody fell through the cracks," Ludlow said, "That would almost be impossible."

After the tests, an applicant would earn a driver's permit and additional skills test. Some companies go further and add additional screening.
If successfully passed, the driver then may operate in a school district.

The reason for the process is safety and to try to prevent accidents.

"I think the cracks need to be filled in by the companies doing the hiring," Ludlow said. "To make sure you do follow all the steps and procedures to get the right people. "

"All the bus companies strive to keep things safe," Ludlow said. "We don't want the children at risk. We've never wanted that at risk."

Keeping children safe, it's a timeless goal for Oldenhoff.

"It's a lot of work to get started, but once you get going it's worth it," Oldenhoff said.

Ripple effect and possible solution

In Reedsburg, District Administrator Patrick Ruddy said the bus driver shortage impacts the entire school day.

The day is impacted to shift people around, and to do that, they have to time it out for different bell schedules.

Ruddy said Reedsburg doesn't have enough consistent drivers and too many people subbing in.

"Parents should be concerned and give some thought into how can we find and attract quality drivers, because we're putting their children and friends children on a school bus driving down the road, and we want that to be a safe experience as possible," Ruddy said.

One solution may be a partnership with Lands' End.
The program works like this: the driver does a route in the morning, works for Lands' End, then follows up in the afternoon.

"It’s an opportunity for drivers to have a full time income working two part time jobs," Ruddy said.

This option may be a possible solution for Reesburg to fill it's 22 regular routes.

As of Nov. 15, 2018, no one has successfully gone through the process with the partnership, but the school district believes the process will help get the word out about the need, according to Kari Stanek, communications specialist for the School District of Reesburg.

About three to four people have attempted the partnership, but none yet completed. Stanek wrote in an email to NBC15 Investigates the district has interest and right now all routes are covered with four substitutes and two going through the training process.

Click to the links to the right for ways to apply.

If you have a story idea for NBC15 Investigates, email Hannah Anderson at News@NBC15.com with the subject line "NBC15 INVESTIGATES."