CEDAR RAPIDS — Nathan Coon circled Bus 1804, checking its tires for leaks and making sure its service doors were secure, before boarding one of the 106 school buses in the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s fleet.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, he dictated his thoughts and actions to Jim Boardman, a trainer.
“I think I’m ready for the brake check,” Coon said, after checking the vehicle’s heaters, defrosters and fans.
“I don’t think you are,” Boardman said.
Coon was practicing for his commercial driver’s license exam — one of many requirements of prospective Iowa school bus drivers, a workforce that almost always is facing a deficit of employees. Iowa schools need to fill close to 1,000 driver positions every year, according to the Iowa Department of Education, out of about 9,000 jobs statewide.
“I’ve been in the business 32 years and I can’t think of a single time where I could actually say we had an abundance of bus drivers,” said Max Christensen of the department’s Bureau of Finance, Facilities, Operations and Transportation.
In the parking lot outside the Cedar Rapids district offices, as Coon practiced, he realized his mistake: he had forgotten to position his rearview and side mirrors and recite the condition of the windshield and wiper blades.
Preparing for the exams is like getting ready to perform in a play, said Boardman, the trainer. Having driven school bus routes in Cedar Rapids for 15 years, he drills prospective drivers like Coon — shadowing and correcting them as they rehearse.
“You’ve got to learn your lines so you can give it to an audience of one,” Boardman said. “You’ve got to say things in a specific way or, well, you don’t get the applause.”
Coon finished his nearly 45-minute run-through, his last before his commercial driver’s license, or CDL, test with the Iowa Department of Transportation the next day. He passed and now drives a route for the district.
Schools are required by Iowa law to offer transportation to elementary school students who live more than 2 miles from school and to high school students who live more than 3 miles from school.
Nationwide, a sizable workforce shortage continues to grow in the transportation sector — primarily among truck drivers, train operators and pilots. The state’s low unemployment rate — at 2.7 percent in February, according to the most recent statistics from Iowa Workforce Development — further compounds the industries’ challenges.
Districts follow ‘different rules’
But while many companies can offer hiring bonuses, pay increases and added benefits to attract and retain employees, school districts primarily rely on the public dollars allocated to them by the state.
“That’s the biggest challenge that we have because we’re in a nonprofit organization,” said Linda Noggle, director of human resources for the Cedar Rapids district. “It’s not as easy for us to add a large sign-on bonus, or to add attendance bonuses, or to increase salaries or anything of that nature. … There’s just different rules that we have to follow.”
The metro district is in a constant state of recruiting, said Cedar Rapids Schools Transportation Manager Scott Wing, and bus drivers are some of the most difficult positions to fill.
Before getting behind the wheel of a busload of students, drivers must:
• Have a commercial driver’s license
• Have “S” and “P” endorsements for school bus and passenger operation, respectively
• Complete a background check
• Pass a Department of Transportation physical
• Complete 17 hours of training, if a brand-new driver, and participate in three hours of additional training every year
“They have to know a lot of rules and regulations, and it takes a special personality to know how to do all of that plus deal with a load of 70 kids behind you,” Wing said.
Wing’s district, like many in Iowa, employs its own driving staff. The Cedar Rapids district has 109 bus drivers, 132 bus attendants — who act as an extra set of eyes on students for a driver — and six van drivers for smaller loads of students.
Starting pay for most Iowa bus drivers is competitive, about $18 to $19 an hour, officials said. A typical driver works about two hours in the morning and another two in the afternoon, meaning drivers are not eligible for full-time benefits.
“I don’t know if it’s a wages thing that is preventing people from getting hired. I think that benefits are a huge piece ... and not a lot of districts offer that,” said Curtis Wheeler, transportation director with Durham School Services.
Durham, a private company, operates more than 16,300 school buses as a contractor with more than 400 school districts in 31 states.
In Iowa, Durham buses transport children in communities like Ames, Ankeny, Waukee, Urbandale, Waterloo, Iowa City and Davenport.
This school year, Cedar Rapids contracted with Durham for van drivers, a common practice as districts struggle to attract workers for part-time, split-shift jobs.
In addition to offering busing services to many districts, Wheeler said Durham also picks up last-minute routes for other schools if a driver is needed.
“Everybody is feeling that pain,” Wheeler said. “At least in Iowa, I can tell you the driver shortages have certainly seen an increase. That’s not just in the private sector, that’s in the public sector as well. Everyone is experiencing it across the board.”
Being creative in finding drivers
One upside of Durham, Wheeler said, is the ability to offer benefits, but the job itself does come with other challenges that make finding drivers difficult.
“Students can put a lot of stress on you, and they can put out a whole lot of distractions when you’re out there driving,” he said. “That creates a lot of anxiety and stress for people.”
The realities of the day-to-day job have led some school districts to find creative solutions to ensure there are enough drivers to get students to class every day.
Last year, three of Spencer Community School District’s 12 drivers retired, said Julie Nemmers, the district’s transportation director.
Located in northwest Iowa south of Spirit Lake, the district serves about 2,000 children across 170 square miles. After losing a quarter of her drivers, Nemmers created three hybrid positions.
The newly hired bus drivers are responsible for a morning and afternoon bus route, with a four-hour shift in between. One hire works as a teaching assistant, another is a custodian and a third spends four hours a day doing grounds-keeping and security.
The positions are 40 hours a week and provide full-time benefits, Nemmers said.
“It’s been a great recruiting tool,” she said. “It’s great to be able to get a driver on board and keep them.”
Some school districts, like Vinton-Shellsburg Community School District, have been lucky to find retirees interested in contributing to the workforce and the schools many of them attended.
“They don’t want to just watch the sun come up and go back down every day,” said Randy Arndt, transportation director. “They want to be drivers.”
In two years with the rural district, where routes across Benton County average 75 miles one way, Arndt has kept 15 full-time drivers and 13 part-timers.
Arndt said the best advice he can give is to be brutally honest with prospective drivers. Before any extensive training, he has interested employees shadow a bus driver on a route.
“There’s yelling and screaming and fighting and kicking and everything else. If they can have all that stuff behind them, then we’ll go on,” Arndt said, noting it can be expensive and time-consuming to have a driver drop out during the training process. “ … If it’s harder than they thought, you’ll lose them in a heartbeat.”
How we've covered employee shortages
Nationwide, a sizable workforce deficit is growing in the transportation sector, and Iowa's low unemployment rate doesn't help.
Before publishing this story, The Gazette wrote about shortages in these industries:
• A 2017 American Trucking Associations truck-driver analysis found that the nation's trucking industry was short about 36,500 drivers in 2016. The truck driver deficit is expected to reach more than 174,000 by 2026, according to the study.
• The nation's airline industry — which transports both people and freight — is expected to be short about 5,000 pilots by 2021, which will keep about 500 aircraft out of the skies, according to Eastern Iowa Airport officials. By 2026 the shortage is forecast to reach 15,000 pilots and about 1,500 grounded planes.
• Union Pacific employs about 42,000 people — about 1,500 in Iowa — and last year offered as much as $10,000 to $20,000 in hiring incentives to attract the 2,100 new workers needed.
What industry should we write about next? Email Mitchell Schmidt at email@example.com and let us know.