Now Hiring: McLean County Schools Need Bus Drivers
School buses will be full again this fall as students prepare for a more typical in-person learning experience, following a year of hybrid learning and other COVID-19-related changes. But school districts don't know who will be driving some of those buses.
The signs are all over Bloomington. A school bus company is hiring and offering free training. Illinois Central School Bus company, which buses District 87 students, put up the signs.
Jeff Gordon, contract manager for Illinois Central, said he's down about a dozen drivers, and the signs haven't helped find more drivers. He said no one has called looking for work.
“I will beg, borrow, steal, whatever I have to do,” Gordon quipped. “I’ve been here for 27 years and this is the worst it has been.”
Gordon blames the expanded unemployment benefits as the main reason more people aren't interested in driving a bus.
“I’ve had two people tell me, ‘I’m making more on unemployment than I would (working for) you,'" Gordon said.
Illinois Central bus drivers start at $17.48 per hour. Drivers aren't paid for the initial training, but after new hires get licensed, they are eligible for paid training and $2,000 signing bonuses. Drivers are guaranteed four hours of work per day, but they can work additional hours covering sporting events, field trips and other school activities.
Gordon said a lot of drivers work 30 to 40 hours per week. They are eligible for health insurance after a year if they work an average of 32 hours per week. Drivers are eligible for the company retirement plan after three months. Gordon said Illinois Central's corporate officers are exploring other options to attract more drivers.
Gordon said District 87 has enough bus drivers to handle the daily routes, but noted when drivers call in sick, they will quickly become short staffed. Some buses may need to take additional routes on those days.
Rural driver shortage
The driver shortage isn't limited to Bloomington. Rural school districts also are having trouble hiring school bus drivers.
Laura O'Donnell is superintendent of Olympia schools in western McLean County. O'Donnell said driver sick days are a worry for her, too. Some drivers feel like they can't call in sick.
“It’s gotten really bad over the last year or year-and-a-half, to the point when many of our drivers will say it’s very difficult for them to even ask for a day off because they know that the district will be at such a disadvantage and will have difficulty getting our kids to school,” O’Donnell said.
She said the Olympia school district also has enough drivers to cover daily routes, but they don't have enough substitute drivers. She said it's likely administrators and mechanics in the district transportation office will have to get behind the wheel some days.
“We do have a couple (staffers) who can provide some backup support, but given the size of the district and the number of routes we have, it’s daunting to think about how we continue to move along this path with such a small number of drivers in the pool,” O’Donnell said.
The Olympia school district spans about 380 square miles, making it one of the largest by size in the state.
O'Donnell said activity routes are a challenge, too. The district has to staff drivers for games and other events, and sends students home to its eight communities after practice every evening. The district offers a financial incentive for coaches to get their bus driver's license. Several coaches now drive their teams to and from road games.
O'Donnell said Olympia schools pay drivers at about $17 per hour to start, but more experienced drivers make up to $26 per hour.
O'Donnell said the district has tried social media to recruit drivers, and word of mouth helped the district find a couple new hires.
The company that manages buses in the Unit 5 school district said it has used an aggressive recruiting campaign to find new drivers — and it has worked.
“We’ve done ice cream socials, we’ve done car washes, we’ve put a lot of energy and a lot of hours into recruiting so that we were in a good spot when we started up,” said Nick Sorey, location manager for First Student in Normal.
Sorey said First Student has enough drivers and subs to start the school year, adding the company is always hiring as drivers come and go.
Sorey said First Student starts drivers at $20 an hour. First Student offers a retirement plan, but no health insurance. Sorey said First Student pays for training.
“We pride ourselves on our training. We pride ourselves on our ability to get somebody trained successfully and safely to do our job,” Sorey said. “It is not an easy job being a bus driver anymore.”
First Student has expanded training. Drivers also are responsible for trying to keep kids safe during the pandemic. That includes enforcing the mask mandate. The CDC requires all students to wear masks, even those who are vaccinated, while on the bus
O'Donnell said she encourages parents to provide their own transportation when they can to help students socially distance on the bus.