Tight labor market drives a school bus driver shortage in Minnesota

Students get on a school bus in St. Paul.
Students get on a school bus in St. Paul in September 2018. A month into the new school year, some Minnesota schools are still struggling to find enough bus drivers to transport kids.
Jeff Horwich for MPR News 2018

Jeremy Olson has a skill that has come in handy multiple times during his last few years as a school superintendent — bus driving.

"I wanted to make sure there wasn't a time in which kids would not be able to go on field trips or our sports teams wouldn't be able to go somewhere,” said Olson, who serves as superintendent of the Crookston School District in northwestern Minnesota. He first got a license to drive school buses a few years ago as superintendent for schools in Underwood and Henning.

Olson said there’s an overall labor shortage in his area of the state, plus a statewide shortage of school bus drivers. And the sugar beet harvest that’s underway right now isn’t helping because substitute drivers are busy hauling beets.

“It's every day, until my transportation director tells me he doesn't need me anymore,” Olson said of his morning bus route. The transportation director and an elementary school principal are also filling in.

In St. Paul, one of the school district's bus vendors told school officials just before the start of the school year that there were 10 routes they wouldn't be able to service, said Jackie Turner, chief operations officer for the St. Paul Public Schools.

"That was unprecedented,” she said. “That left us with a large hole in our system, and so for the first several weeks of school we were pooling all resources internally to make sure that our routes were covered."

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Turner said district staff who are licensed to drive school buses but normally perform other duties were called on to drive. Meanwhile, the district tried to line up one of its existing bus vendors to cover an extended day learning program that was supposed to start next week.

"They could not. They did not have the capacity because of the state shortage," Turner said.

The district was able to find a new vendor, she said, but more time was needed to sign a contract and train the drivers. As a result, the start of the extended day learning program was pushed back by two weeks. District officials emphasized that the program will end later as well, giving students the same amount of instruction time.

"It's a situation that no one wants to be in, obviously," said Garrett Regan, president of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association. He said while school bus companies look for more drivers, they're doing their best to find efficiencies, like making an existing route longer.

Regan said companies are offering a range of incentives — sign-on and referral bonuses, health benefits and competitive wages — for new hires. But it can be a tough sell. Drivers must have a fairly clean record, though Regan says it usually doesn’t have to be perfect. And in a lot of cases, drivers must work a split shift and don’t earn money during the summer and school breaks.

Still, Regan says it's a popular occupation for retirees and stay-at-home parents who, in some cases, can bring their kids on the bus with them.

"It gives you some extra money and the flexible schedule and the benefit of working with kids and being that positive influence on their lives,” he said.

In District 196, which covers the Twin Cities suburbs of Rosemount, Apple Valley and Eagan, Karen Dayon's career started as a school bus driver. She now leads the district-owned transportation department.

Dayon said districts that own their transportation departments have more control over the things that can make a difference when hiring and retaining drivers. Her district offers drivers health insurance, sick time and retirement benefits if they work 23 hours or more a week. And little things can also help retain drivers, she said.

"We have heated driver seats, heated wipers — because in a snowstorm that snow sticks to your windshield and your wipers. We have electric mirrors,” she said. “We try to cover all of our bases to make sure our employees are taken care of."

Even with perks like that, Dayon said the district pays less per student on transportation costs than most metro-area school districts.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman contributed to this report.