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Bus driver shortage ongoing

By Walt Frank

wfrank@altoonamirror.com

As the start of the 2021-22 school year fastly approaches, a shortage of drivers is jeopardizing Pennsylvania’s ability to get its 1.5 million students back and forth to school, sporting events and activities.

According to local bus contractors, the shortage of drivers is an ongoing problem and has worsened since the pandemic.

“In the past few years, the shortage has been in the severe range, but since COVID, it has reached critical status for us as well as most contractors in the state,” said Shae Harkleroad, owner of Raystown Transit Service.

Raystown Transit Service serves three public school districts along with multiple private schools in Blair, Huntingdon and Centre counties.

Altoona Area School District spokeswoman Paula Foreman said the district contracts with Student Transportation of America and the district, too, is experiencing a driver shortage, as are many other districts.

“COVID has played a big part in the shortage for various reasons, and the reality is, it is more lucrative for some folks to continue to collect unemployment,” Foreman said.

There are other reasons for the driver shortage, though, said partner Mort Snider of Port Matilda-based Beckwith Busing.

“It is because of how much schooling and training they need to have,” Snider said. “Dealing with kids is more difficult nowadays; it is a big hassle.”

Drivers are required to have 20 hours of schooling and clearances, Snider said, and they need to take a drivers test. They also need to take a physical every year.

Snider said Beckwith has been in business for 67 years and the company is picky about its drivers.

“We have had people we have turned down,” Snider said. “If you have a DUI, you are done. You need a clean driving record and need to take a drug test. We do random testing four times a year.”

Both Raystown and Beckwith serve the Tyrone Area School District, where Superintendent Leslie Estep said the owners of the companies have a good working relationship and assist each other in covering routes when needed and if they are able.

“I know that both companies actively try and recruit additional drivers and do what they can to work with current and potential drivers around other work schedules to maintain their employment,” Estep said.

“We have drivers fill in for each other,” Snider said. “Nowadays you need to work together. I also help other school districts.”

In order to address the driver shortage, the Pennsylvania School Bus Association has launched a statewide recruitment campaign aimed at raising public awareness of the shortage as well as providing a number of resources that can be used to recruit new school bus drivers.

Harkelroad praised the PSBA for being proactive in trying to find drivers.

“The Pennsylvania School Bus Association is one of the strongest bus associations in the country and recognized early in the shutdown that this was going to be a challenge we all would be facing soon,” Harkleroad said.

While the PSBA initiative is a plus, Harkleroad said the best method of recruitment for the company has been word of mouth. Flying a “now hiring” flag at the facility in Bellwood has also helped, Harkleroad said.

Raystown Transit and Beckwith Busing are in need of more drivers for the upcoming school year.

“We run 24 daily school bus routes, and as of today we are thre drivers short to begin school in a little over a month. We run anywhere from 24 to 30 van routes each year as well and are currently three or four drivers short there as well,” Harkleroad said of Raystown Transit.

Snider said Beckwith Busing is currently down just one driver.

“Driving a bus can be a great job for moms, grandparents and people who need flexibility,” Foreman said.

“The schedule follows the school schedule so when kids are off, so are the drivers,” she said, noting that STA provides all the necessary training and is currently looking to hire 12 bus drivers and six van drivers for the upcoming school year.

At the heart of the PSBA campaign is a website — YouBehindTheWheel.com — featuring a job portal that connects interested individuals with driver openings in their backyards. Those who want to learn more about becoming a school bus driver are urged to visit the website.

“We’re proud that during the pandemic school bus drivers remained on the job, dealing with various types of schedules and working as full partners with our school districts,” said Aaron Sepkowski, PSBA second vice president and membership committee chair. “Our membership committee had this fabulous vision two years ago that our members would benefit from a driver recruitment campaign. Our members are working hard to ensure the bus driver seat will be filled as we plan for a full schedule of school and activities this fall.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.

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