The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune-Democrat.
School bus drivers have been in short supply for years nationwide, a scarcity exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as many bus drivers departed the profession to find more regular employment. Pittsburgh Public Schools is reporting that the district lacks seats for 2,600 students who will go without transportation until school officials can solve the issue. Other districts also are facing shortages.
The pandemic alone is not to blame. Years of poor wages, irregular hours, and the challenge of handling rambunctious children have largely turned school bus driving into a labor of love.
The solution to the shortage boils down to simple economics: the supply of drivers simply doesn’t match the demand for drivers. It’s time to boost school bus driver wages to more attractive levels.
Driving a school bus requires a Class C Commercial Driver’s License with a “school bus” endorsement. This requires an official background check as well as specialized training. The license requirements demonstrate that the state takes the charge of transporting students seriously.
As it should – these drivers are commissioned with the care of America’s most valuable cargo each and every school day. It can be a high-stakes, pressure-charged environment with distractions like unruly behavior and inclement weather that require patience and nerves of steel.
Undergoing training for a license takes time and often isn’t compensated.
It’s not surprising that many potential school bus drivers pivot to other commercial driving opportunities. Salary.com puts the median school bus driver’s salary in Pennsylvania at $35,103, although it notes the range is from $28,336 to $42,780.
Additionally, many drivers are contractors, which means they do not qualify for benefits such as health insurance.
More than 80% of Pennsylvania’s school districts contract out busing services to third-party companies. Driver wages are not always under the direct purview of school administrators, but administrators can choose which companies to hire and can exert influence by calling for higher wages for drivers.
Likewise, some contractors choose to provide benefits to their employees.
And school administrators should emphasize hiring those companies.
Finally, schools and contracting companies could begin compensating driver training as incentive for new drivers to sign on.
This will be more expensive of course, but it is an investment in students.
In the short term, Pittsburgh area school districts that are facing shortages must work with parents to free up as many seats as possible, as some kids may be able to walk to school or take public transportation, or some parents may have the time to drive their children to and from school.
In the long run, however, schools must work to raise the salary of their bus drivers to rates that attract the number of prospective drivers needed to keep districts’ transportation systems rolling.