The Union R-XI School District is desperately trying to hire new bus drivers.
Union R-XI Assistant Superintendent Mike Mabe said his district has been searching to fill two to three positions for nearly a year to no avail. He said in some positions, there have been no applicants at all.
Administrators hope that a $1,000 signing bonus after 90 days with the district and a change to the district’s salary schedule will bring in new drivers and monitors.
Union resident Eileen Wade spent four years working as a bus monitor for the Union R-XI district. She worked with special needs students for four hours per day, helping them get to and from school, off and on the bus and back to their homes.
“I miss those kids tremendously,” Wade said. “It’s an amazing job — seeing them grow up and change from what the school district and their parents do for them was amazing.”
The job could be tough, Wade said. Unpredictable hours and dealing with students who were prone to outbursts was “physically exhausting.” But she said, looking back, the job was one of the best she’s had.
Wade ultimately left the position to pursue another path and has since opened an art studio on Main Street.
It’s bus monitors and drivers like Wade that school districts all over the country are in search of now, due to a national shortage that has left districts and bus companies, including those in St. Clair and Washington, with a strained staff.
Greg Black, a current driver in the Union School District for more than four years, said the job is a chance for him to spend time with his son, who is a senior at Union High School. He said the hours work well for him and being part of students’ lives every day is rewarding.
Part of the issue, Mabe said, is figuring out why some drivers and monitors aren’t interested in busing anymore and how they can best be lured toward the position.
“We just haven’t been able to fill them. We’re not even getting applicants,” Mabe said. “We’ve tried all the avenues we have. It’s not for a lack of trying.”
According to a School Bus Fleet magazine survey, 22 percent of school bus companies call the shortage “severe,” and 5 percent said they are “desperate” to find new drivers. Every company that was surveyed agreed there was a shortage.
Mabe said the issue has become a priority for the district, adding that it impacts day-to-day activities. He said it has gotten to the point where the board of education had to approve changes to the positions to make them more attractive.
However, it isn’t only districts that are in need of drivers. First Student, which provides all bus transporation for the Washington School District and a portion of Union School District, is struggling to attract drivers as well.
First Student Location Manager Marty Marks said his branch is having trouble attracting drivers even with offering unemployment compensation over the summer and free training.
“We’re definitely experiencing a shortage at our location,” Marks said. “That is typical of the bus industry as well. There are other First Student locations that have shortages and other school districts have them as well.”
He said First Student is offering to pay for training for prospective drivers to learn how to drive the bus, something he said many districts do not offer.
Both Union School District and First Student officials have been attending and even hosting job fairs to attract drivers.
Marks said First Student is paying for drivers’ training and hosting open houses so would-be drivers can feel out a bus before signing up.
For now, at Union, Mabe is crossing his fingers for new applicants. He said until the vacancies are filled, Union’s fleet will be stretched thin.
“It’s not that we don’t want to hire, we’re not even getting applicants,” he said. “We have some staff who are doing an excellent job and being team players, and are helping us every day with filling the needs we have.”