(By Christen Smith – The Center Square) – State officials took an unusual step Thursday and reached out to more 375,000 commercially licensed drivers in hopes of covering a growing school bus driver shortage.
Kurt Myers, deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), told reporters the pool of qualified bus drivers has shrunk to 42,000, the lowest level seen in five years.
“We urge CDL licensees who are seeking work or supplemental employment to obtain a school bus endorsement – taking advantage of the additional hours for CDL testing – to help transport students safely,” Myers said.
Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega said the state remains aware of the ongoing transportation challenges and expressed hope a creative solution could be found.
“I know it can be frustrating to our students, and our parents, and school leaders are working incredibly hard to address these needs,” Ortega said. “The need for bus drivers isn’t something we can fix overnight … [but] I believe we can make progress on this.”
The situation forced several school districts across the state to delay school opening until after Labor Day, including Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The driver shortage, locally and nationally, is the result of low wages, limited hours and minimal health benefits that hurt recruitment efforts, Pittsburgh Public Schools said. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem.
Drivers also must go through rigorous training that often is unpaid and receive multiple clearances, Mort Snider, who works for Beckwith Buses in Centre County, said during an interview with the Altoona Mirror in August.
“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.”
The Pennsylvania School Bus Association, in an effort to drum up interest, launched a recruitment campaign in July to match potential drivers with job openings. The salaries range from $15 an hour to $25 an hour with benefits.