READFIELD — Kelly Thompson, Regional School Unit 38’s transportation director, told the school board last week the district has been able to retain and actively hire people to operate buses during a statewide driver shortage.
Since the end of last school year, the school district has been able to train three new drivers and has an incoming driver from out-of-state.
Due to the effort of Thompson and Adult Education Director Steve Vose, who is offering a free class to earn a class B license to drive a school bus, RSU 38 is in better shape than most in Maine. The Readfield-area district has even been able to fill all 18 positions called for in the annual budget.
At the end of last school year, they had 13 drivers.
“She (Thompson) really takes care of staff and really knows what it takes,” Vose said. “She has done aggressive summer training and recruitment. She has called around to see who are looking for part-time employment and before it was too late, she was able to get ahead of the curve.”
The driver shortage has been an ongoing issue across the state.
In April, the challenge was having enough drivers to bring students back to school five days a week and superintendents in the area were “begging” people to sign up to drive. More recently, in southern Maine, school districts have paid incentives to get people to sign up to be bus drivers, including at the most, $3,000 bonuses.
Meanwhile in RSU 18, Transportation Director Lennie Goff said it’s the “first year he has started without a full pool of drivers.” He was able to hire three drivers over the summer to increase the district’s numbers from 28 to 31, just one shy of their “full pool,” but said the shortage has been an issue, even before the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is not pertained to just this area or just the state. It’s nationwide; there is a driver shortage,” Goff said. “This has been a number of years coming; I was having issues long before COVID-19.”
To retain drivers for RSU 38, Thompson and Vose used the summer to recruit potential drivers and students for Vose’s license program through the district’s adult education.
On July 29, the school district hosted an event to “drive a school bus.” Even though Thompson said it “poured” that day, five potential drivers still showed up. The event paired prospects with current bus drivers who showed them the ropes. They tour a school bus, learned the buttons and levers, and then were able to get behind the wheel for a test drive.
The event was advertised as “no strings attached” as a way for people who are interested to see what the job entails.
“It was exciting,” Thompson told the school board. “The drivers felt appreciated and like they were part of a team.”
In addition, the district’s adult education Commercial Drivers License course received the Workforce Innovation Grant to offer up to 30 free spots from September to January for students who are eligible — students who have dependents to care for or meet a certain income threshold. Bangor’s adult education CDL program helped RSU 38, not only because it was the closest in proximity, but also to spread the education further down the state.
Vose said most of the students who are interested in applying to be a bus driver are already working at the minimum wage level and because of personal expenses, might not have extra money to spend $2,700 to take the class. If students are not eligible, they can take out a 0% loan to cover the cost.
“A lot of people we target are currently at the minimum wage level and are looking for a way to advance themselves and get the credentials to be at a livable wage,” Vose said.
He said he has had to be creative in the way he has recruited and retained potential students.
For the first class the program is offering, nine of the 10 spots are filled. The class will run over nine periods in the month of September, and be offered again in November and January. Vose said it wasn’t easy.
“I’ve made around 40 phone calls to different transportation directors within an hour drive of my location in central Maine,” he said. “Verbal communication to the people works.”
When Vose receives names from transportation directors of people who might be interested in the training, he asks for their phone numbers and calls them personally. He said interested people range in age from 18-65, but the majority are between 35-45 and are working in the district already as custodians or janitors.
Goff agreed and said the best way he has found in finding drivers is “word of mouth.”
Vose also recruits students with flyers — most students say they found out about the program that way.
“I drive and the other day, it took me four days to drive in an hour circle around my facilities,” he said. “I go to every single supermarket, laundromat, dollar store, all these places to target the population. Everyone has to go to the supermarket. I try to hit all and try to be effective.”
The biggest hurdle the potential students face is either affording the class or not having a class nearby where it would make sense to apply and attend. At this point in time, there is no virtual class, but Vose hopes there might be one in the future.
“We have to think ahead of the curve and have to look at that as a good idea and invest on it,” he said. “We have to be innovative and think outside the box on what the next idea is.”
Students who apply for the program have to be 18 to drive a dump truck and 21 to drive a school bus. The free CDL program covers the class B license to drive an automatic school bus, but students can pay extra if they wanted to go through more testing to be certified to drive other vehicles, like a fuel tanker.
The primary focus of the program is on school buses, mainly as a way to retain and keep drivers.
Additionally, those interested will have to take a drug test, a Department of Transportation physical, go through a full background and fingerprint check through the Department of Education and have their driver’s license run to make sure they do not have any suspensions or other offenses.
“We certify them ahead of time to make sure they don’t get halfway through and find out they aren’t eligible,” Vose said.
Thompson explained to the RSU 38 board of directors that when the pandemic hit, older bus drivers who were close to retirement age, retired early and the district lost drivers.
Goff said the physical test may be harder for older people to pass. He said that is similar to a physical at a doctor’s office. People who are older tend to be more interested in applying to be a bus driver, too, because it’s a job that doesn’t have too much of a time commitment, but the physical could prevent them from passing.
“We carry the most precious cargo,” Goff said. “The physical requirements have been more stringent, rightfully so, but when you get older, the physical alignment may be harder. … One of the things they are keen on is the sleep apnea … they want to make sure whoever is behind the wheel is in good physical condition.”
Thompson said she doesn’t think potential applicants realize the benefits of being a bus driver.
For 20 hours a week, they are offered full-time benefits, along with raises in pay for the amount of time they stay. Drivers have the ability to gain more hours through sports transportation and can be part-time custodians in the district. Pay for bus drivers ranges from $18 per hour to more than $21 per hour, depending on the number of years in the profession.
“My motto was, ‘Think outside the box,’” said Thompson. “I didn’t think people understood the benefits of being a bus driver. You can ask any of the drivers. Who wouldn’t want a part-time job with full-time benefits?”
RSU 38 did have its share of transportation issues, with changing routes and adjusting to the driver shortage in the past year, but one parent at the Wednesday school board meeting, Sarah Dyer, commented on how the district always adjusted to help her and her family out.
After a year of uncertainty, Thompson told the school board, “It’s great to hear the ‘beep, beep, beep’ again in the school yard.”
Drivers recruited from the summer events will take their class B written skills test in the coming weeks and will hopefully have their own routes by the end of the month.
“We care so much about our students,” Thompson said. “It’s a quality we can’t teach them. It’s ingrained in them.”