They take on the routes left behind by colleagues who called in sick and act as peacekeepers from the rearview mirror during student arguments.
“We’ve got to be a mother, a father and a preacher all in one,” said Sallie Thomas, a Richmond County school bus driver for 30 years.
Recruitment and retention problems have caused a shortage of bus drivers in the Richmond, Columbia and Aiken county school systems, creating a heavier workload for the existing employees.
The problem is worse in some areas than others, but the reasons for the empty driver seats are similar.
By nature, the job comes with high responsibility with low pay and awkward hours.
Drivers often leave when better job prospects come along, family members get ill or employees approach retirement, said Jimmie Wiley, the Richmond County school system’s transportation director.
“Some of it could be the behavior of some of our students, too,” Wiley said. “The school bus is an extension of the classroom. … You got bullying on school buses and in schools. A lot of that plays a part in recruiting.”
With a staff of about 150 drivers, the district needs about 20 more to run efficiently, Wiley said. The department hired 15 drivers over this school year, but employees are often absent and there is a high turnover rate.
On average, nearly 20 drivers call in sick or are absent every day, causing the department to have to double or triple routes on an already thin fleet of drivers.
“It affects us tremendously,” Wiley said. “At 5 o’clock in the morning, you may plan for what you already know … and then you get the calls of, ‘Well, I was en route to work, I’ve had an emergency or during the course of the morning someone got sick.’ You get this call at 5 a.m., and you have to go to plan B and C.”
The Aiken County school system is dealing with the worst driver shortage it has seen in recent years, according to Transportation Manager Maria McClure.
The system needs about 18 more drivers to add to its current 200-person staff but is having trouble finding qualified people to fit the job.
“We’re losing some of them because of medical reasons, we’ve lost some to other jobs and it’s just progressively gotten worse,” she said. “We’re having to double routes, which means students are getting to school late and they’re getting home late.”
McClure said applicants can’t have a DUI or more than four points on their driving record, which thins the applicant pool. Drivers also have to be willing to work split days with breaks over the summer and holidays with no pay.
The downsides make turnover an issue. McClure said many drivers don’t realize the high-stress job they are signing up for.
Absenteeism is a problem in the Columbia County school system, which is short of a full staff by about seven drivers.
Transportation Director Dewayne Porter said that because drivers come in contact with more than 60 kids a day, sickness becomes an everyday occurrence.
“It’s difficult to find somebody that’s a good fit to be a bus driver,” he said. “How many people do you know are willing to go through the training, first of all? Second of all, you’re responsible for approximately 120 kids a day. … It’s probably the toughest job we have in the school system.”
A shortage of bus drivers is not uncommon across the country, but it also is not the norm, according to Michael Martin, the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
Experts have been unable to determine why driver shortages occur in some places and not others, but Martin said common factors are community support and budget issues.
When a district has financial problems, bus equipment is normally older, pay is less and morale is lower, so recruiting can be difficult, he said.
Martin said the employees must have support from the schools, parents and the community at large to stay on the job for a long time.
“When you’re talking about a job that pays the rough equivalent of something that might be a retail job or something in food service, it’s got pretty high barriers to entry,” Martin said.
Thomas said the problem in Richmond County has to do with morale more than anything else. Drivers are often frustrated with route designs and feel that their concerns are not heard by the school board.
Moreover, parents at times step onto buses at stops to yell at drivers or deal with children, she said.
In January, a father was arrested after he flagged a driver down, punched out a window and tried to pull her out of the bus after she followed protocol by not letting the man’s child off the bus in a parking lot.
“Every driver out there is looking for a different job,” she said. “You get pushed to the point that as much as you care about the kids and as much as you care about the situation … people aren’t staying.”