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Help wanted: School bus drivers needed

Banners posted on fences and parked school buses scream out for help: "School Bus Drivers Wanted."

The nationwide shortage of bus drivers is being felt in Western New York.

Before children get excited that there might not be enough staff to drive them to school, as has happened in some parts of the country, local districts are not reporting consequences that dire.

But districts sometimes feel the squeeze when drivers call in sick and there are not enough substitutes. Luckily, there are some mechanics who are trained drivers.

"The biggest issue is we have to send our mechanics out on the road," said Carolyn Robertson, assistant superintendent for business at Frontier.

This year, the Frontier district had 21 new drivers in the works, either getting their driving permits or training for their commercial driving licenses over the summer, and they will be set for school runs.

Depew has enough drivers and substitutes to start the school year, but the district is continually looking for drivers, and keeps a large banner on a bus parked outside the high school and a picture of it on its website.

The shortage of bus drivers goes far beyond Western New York. In a survey by School Bus Fleet of the top 50 transportation companies in the country, 22 percent reported a severe shortage and more than half said they experienced a moderate shortage.

Instructor in Training Dennis Long, left, leads Driver Candidate James Becker, right, through a bus inspection at the Frontier Central Schools transportation center in Hamburg. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Depew's Transportation Director Douglas Baumgarden is president of the Western New York Association for Pupil Transportation and is on the board of the state organization. He said the bus driver shortage is a frequent topic of conversation.

"Everyone has the same issue with not enough drivers. We really haven’t come up with a handle on why," he said, but he noted it is a job with great responsibility.

The job entails getting up early, working split shifts in demanding and sometimes stressful circumstances with high accountability requiring physical, drug and alcohol testing to make sure children get to and from school safely.

"People just aren't interested anymore," Robertson said. "It's a high-risk job that people are hesitant to take."

The job can pay $14 to $16 an hour to start, with experienced drivers making up to $24.

"There are pretty stringent rules and regulations a bus driver has to follow," said Tim Blivens, Frontier's transportation supervisor. "It might be easier to go to McDonald's and make $15 an hour."

Still, there are dedicated bus drivers, like Deana Sanders who has worked for First Student for 17 years, who enjoy watching over children as she transports them from their parents' care to school. She also has trained drivers for 14 years.

"You've got to like what you do," she said. "The children are great. I really enjoy it."

Perks include being off on weekends and holidays. Those working for a school district can join the state retirement system, and some districts pay for part of the cost of health insurance. There also is the opportunity for advancement at a large company like First Student, which employs about 1,500 drivers, mechanics, safety, training and office staff in Western New York.

"It used to be a niche," Blivens said of driving a bus.

Farmers and housewives used to sign up to drive school buses for the extra income and to have a good portion of the day free. But today some decide that rather than work split shifts, they would rather find full-time jobs.

And now, with the shortage, a lot of retirees are coming back to drive, Blivens said.

"The drivers love the children they drive,"  he said, adding there's a lot of camaraderie among school bus drivers.

For districts, recruiting is a year-round commitment. First Student goes to job fairs, community events, churches and colleges, and advertises to interest potential hires.

"We really would like people from the communities to work in their communities," said Dawn Tighe, training center manager for First Student.

First Student, like school districts, will train potential drivers, helping them get their permits and licenses. New bus drivers are sent out with experienced drivers who mentor them.

"The drivers are the first part of school that the kids see and the last part of school that the kids see," Baumgarden said. "For the right person looking for a job, school bus driving is a very rewarding job."

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