It’s not easy finding bus drivers.
Aimee Cook, manager of Mid-Columbia Bus Company in Hermiston, said about 15 to 20 percent of their drivers turn over every year, and finding new ones takes active recruitment.
“School bus drivers, the shortage of them, is a nationwide epidemic,” she said.
The Umatilla County unemployment rate in May was 5.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But local employers say it can be hard to find employees who can show up on time, drug free and with the right skills for the job. Cook said it is particularly hard to find people interested in a part-time, split-shift job that entails picking up kids early in the morning and dropping them off in the afternoons for three and a half to seven hours a day.
Many of the people willing to work that kind of schedule are retirees, she said, who then decide after a year or two that they’re ready to retire completely. Other drivers are young people who then quit after starting a family, or people lured away by plentiful jobs at food processors or data centers.
For many years MidCo has recruited by posting signs on school buses parked around town, but Cook said this year the Hermiston office offered the school districts they serve — Umatilla, Stanfield and Hermiston — a fundraising opportunity. Umatilla School District took them up on the offer, and Umatilla students raised money for their clubs and sports for a week by standing on prominent street corners with signs.
“When the kids were out holding signs we had an amazing response,” she said. “We got 25 applications.”
MidCo is still hiring, however, for route drivers, substitute drivers and drivers to take students on field trips and to away games for sports. Employment requires passing a background check, physical, drug test and commercial driver’s license test.
When a driver is hired by MidCo they are given help studying to take a test at the DMV for their learner’s permit for their class B commercial driver’s license. Once they receive the permit they get hours of supervised driving until they are ready to take the test to receive their CDL. After they have their CDL and have completed other trainings on topics such as handling rowdy students, they are sent out with an empty bus for a total of five hours’ worth of practice drives on their expected route. Trainers can then work with them on any spots they still feel less than confident about before they take on students.
Cook said she has driven buses and the important thing to remember is that your job is to get students there safely and on time, even if that means being “mean” by telling them they have to follow the rules.
The job can be enjoyable, she said, and some people love being able to make money for part of the year while still getting summers, spring break and holidays off. MidCo does have some work opportunities during the summer too, such as driving the Umatilla County Fair shuttle this week. Getting to take overnight trips out of town from time to time can also be a perk.
Despite the turnover rate, some drivers have been taking Hermiston kids to school for 20 years now.
“Once they get past the third year, they tend to stay,” Cook said.