With about a week left before the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Harford County has more than 65 openings for bus drivers. Cathy Bendis, the school system’s director of transportation, said that’s more vacancies than in a typical year.
As of late last week, there were 40 contractor bus driver positions to be filled and 26 special needs drivers needed, she said. They do have several drivers in training, however, though it takes time to get them fully certified.
“We had 35 in class this week so we are working diligently to get them trained and certified,” she said Tuesday. “It will take some time to fill the vacant positions, however we are seeing an increase in applicants.”
A fleet of about 500 buses transport the county’s more than 35,000 students to and from public schools each year — approximately 42,000 miles each day.
Harford County Public Schools owns and operates more than 100 specials needs buses, but contracts with various companies for the remaining 380 or so general education buses.
Steve Nelson owns Nelson Bus Company in Forest Hill, which contracts with HCPS, and is also president of the Maryland School Bus Contractors Association.
“I told the director of transportation that other day, I’ve been in business 42 years and this is the first year that I’ve been nervous about the start of school and don’t really know what all is going to take place to be honest with you,” Nelson said.
He blames expanded unemployment benefits for a majority of the shortages, which aren’t exclusive to Harford County or Maryland.
“I honestly and truly believe that,” he said. “People are getting this extra money and people would rather collect that than train and go to work.”
Other contractors have also told him they’ve lost drivers due to some COVID-related mandates. One driver with his daughter’s bus company quit after learning mask-wearing would be mandated, and he’s heard others have lost drivers for similar reasons.
While Nelson’s company didn’t lose any drivers from last year, they are short-staffed to start the coming school year. He’s working with another contractor to help cover one of his routes, but is concerned about drivers calling out or missing time.
“If drivers get sick, we would help each other out, double up a run if we could, or do another run for someone else in between two of our runs,” he said. “We’ll do our best to get everyone to school on time and safely.”
Bus routes have already been posted on the school and bus locator on the school system’s website, Bendis said, but could be adjusted if necessary.
“As in years past when routes have been combined for various reasons, or if there is any unexpected schedule change, we will communicate the information as quickly as possible,” she said. “Any ‘day of’ adjustments that have to be made due to a driver calling out will be communicated to the schools and then to the families.”
Bendis said her department is working closely with contractors to monitor driver availability and make route adjustments as needed, and school system staff has been attending job fairs and seeking driver applicants to fill vacancies.
“If you know anyone interested in a position that provides a company vehicle, paid training and a great schedule please send them our way,” Bendis said.
Interested candidates should visit the employment opportunities page at hcps.org.
The school system will provide applicants with an invitation to an information session which assess their goals and the best fit. If they wish to continue as a special needs bus driver or attendant they will continue with the HCPS application process, Bendis said.
Information for contractors is also shared at that session, but anyone who wants to work for a local contractor should reach out to them directly, she said. Local contractors also have jobs posted on various job boards and advertising spaces in the community.
Some bus companies are offering sign-on bonuses or other incentives to get people to apply. Others, like Nelson, are offering a higher hourly wage.
Nelson’s company and several others, he said, offer $20 an hour, with a minimum of five hours of work each day with opportunities for additional hours such as field trips. Harford County pays its contractors $19.57 for drivers. The difference, Nelson said, “comes out of my bottom line.”
But just getting someone willing to drive a bus doesn’t immediately solve the shortage. Bus companies typically pay to train applicants to get their their Commercial Driver’s License, which is required to operate a school bus. Nelson has a trainee ready to take their CDL exam, but that can also take time due to back-ups at the Motor Vehicle Administration, he said; they can only do so many tests in a day.
“For a new driver to come on, you’re looking at almost two months to get them on the road, there’s a lot of things that have to work together,” Nelson said. “With the MVA being behind because of all the stuff they’ve had to do because of COVID, it’s been a real challenge.”
He hopes parents will be understanding that bus drivers, contractors and the school system are doing the best they can to start the school year.
“Rest assured, even if there are some problems to start with — some late buses or missed buses — we’re not just going to put any ol’ driver out there,” he said. “The drivers are going to be safe and well-trained before they get behind the wheel of a bus.”