Bus driver shortage challenges Manatee district

chawes@bradenton.comJanuary 15, 2012 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District is struggling to find enough school bus drivers despite a local jobless rate of 10 percent, a higher starting hourly rate than neighboring school districts, and a marketing blitz that includes everything from local job boards to oversized, red-print signs at street corners.

The district has 16 openings among its driver force of 192, officials say. While Manatee officials say there is no connection between the driver shortage and a Jan. 6 school bus accident that left 21 students and the driver with minor injuries, the shortage is having detrimental effects.

It’s causing office staff and administrators to fill in for sick or vacationing drivers. And while all of those filling in are fully trained and have experience as bus drivers, they are not able to focus fully on key planning tasks like preparing summer school routes, says Don Ross, the district’s transportation director.

“This just ratchets up the stress and everything else we have to do,” Ross says. “It’s getting tough. We understand there are budget cuts and that the community wants us to do the right thing and run this district as a business. But at a certain point, when you don’t have the workers to perform the business, it takes a toll on everybody.”

Not only does the district have a shortage of drivers, it also is not receiving an adequate number of applications for the available open positions, says Celeste Martin, the district’s safety and training officer. Earlier this week, the district had received only 22 applications for the 16 openings. Ideally, Ross says, the district aims to have twice as many applications as open positions.

Of those 22 contacted, Martin says, only 10 agreed to come in for an interview.

At least one other area school district is facing a similar situation. In Hillsborough County, about 100 open positions exist among the district’s 1,100 driver spots, says John Franklin, transportation director for Hillsborough County schools.

“It’s a recurring issue for us,” says Franklin. “This is 10-month employment, and people get offered employment elsewhere that is more attractive.”

By contrast, Pasco and Sarasota counties have no driver openings and haven’t experienced any in recent years. Ellery Girard, Sarasota County’s transportation director, says one reason his district has no difficulties attracting driver candidates is nighttime and Saturday training courses.

Sarasota began offering courses at times other than weekdays in 2000, in order to make it possible for people with existing jobs to receive driver training.

Manatee County’s driver shortage is surprising considering that its starting hourly rate of $11.78 is higher than several southwest Florida districts. Pasco County starts its drivers at $11.25, says Transportation Director Gary Sawyer, and Hillsborough’s starting rate is $10.56. Sarasota County starts its drivers at $12.75.

Manatee County’s top driver rate of $19.19 is higher than most nearby districts. Sarasota County’s top pay for drivers is $18.08, Hillsborough’s is $19.50, and Pasco’s is $14.90.

One factor that may be discouraging applicants is Manatee County’s policy regarding driver experience: new drivers start at the same rate regardless of experience, a result of union negotiations, Ross says. Sarasota, Pasco and Hillsborough all provide higher starting rates for drivers with experience.

A key perk of becoming a school bus driver is the money an applicant saves in obtaining his or her commercial drivers’ license, which authorizes a driver to transport hazardous waste, large loads and passengers. The cost to pursue such a license is about $1,500. School districts relieve aspiring drivers of that cost through their training, which includes a minimum state-mandated 40 hours of instruction including eight hours behind the wheel of a bus.

Manatee County exceeds the state mandate and ensures its drivers have at least 24 hours of on-the-road training, Martin says.

The district hopes to generate a burst of applicants and fill its 16 vacancies with a marketing burst that includes outreach through the Suncoast Workforce job training agency and an advertising blitz in local media, Ross says.

Meanwhile, several current drivers for Manatee school say the job is worthwhile and rewarding for anyone interested in helping kids.

“The starting pay isn’t a very bad rate of pay to start with,” says Kimberly Garcia, 41, who has been driving a school bus since 1994. “If people love working with kids and enjoy helping to teach them by transporting them safely, they should go ahead and apply. We’re willing to work with them and help them.”

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