Wanted: School bus drivers

The owners of three local bus companies say it’s getting much harder to find people to drive their buses.

“It’s easy to say ‘just get a new driver,’ but it’s not that easy to just get one,” said Chad Findlay as he described the challenges currently facing the school bus industry.

Findlay took over ownership of the Cranberry Bus Co. in Seneca this spring. His company, along with Ken Ion’s Lepley Bus Service — based in Franklin — are the two entities responsible for transportation in the Oil City and Cranberry school districts, Findlay said.

Findlay said that as the pandemic drags on and industries are facing staffing shortages, the school transportation industry is no different.

“We’re in a unique position here,” Findlay said Thursday morning in the Cranberry Bus Co. office while calls rolled in on his cell phone.

Findlay said the calls could be anything from a substitute driver he’s been trying to reach or an athletic director with information about changing game schedules to accommodate transportation needs.

“The school districts, the superintendents, the athletic directors, they’ve all been great to work with,” Findlay said. But he added that with COVID putting a dent in the number of drivers he has to pull from — the result of a drop in people filling bus driver jobs that’s been going on since before COVID, according to others in the industry — “when I have to make a phone call to a district to cancel a field trip or a sports event, it kills me.”

Findlay’s own child, he said, was one of the students affected by the recent cancellation of a school trip to Benezette in Elk County.

“My kid had to write a paper to qualify for that trip too,” he said.

But there just weren’t enough drivers to get all the morning and afternoon school runs finished and still have drivers to go to Benezette, Findlay said.

Cranberry Bus Co. currently has one positive COVID case, said Findlay, but that represents more than one person out in quarantine for the company.

“It’s out of my control,” Findlay said. He said he gets feedback and questions from parents about why trips have had to be canceled and he understands the frustration and even recognizes it as a parent himself, but to “just get a new driver” takes about a month, he added.

Between background checks, drug tests, clearances, licensing and testing, it’s about a month from hired to driving, Findlay said. It’s also, he explained, a job that’s traditionally attractive to retirees or parents of school-aged children.

“It’s a part-time job,” said Findlay. “You have your afternoons and summers off,” but he added, “it can also be intimidating.”

That’s a sentiment that Barry Weldon, owner of Northwest Bus Co. of Titusville, echoed.

“It’s just incredibly hard to get a driver to walk through the door for two hours a day with all the requirements,” Weldon said.

Weldon added he’s seen the decline in bus drivers and new applicants over the past five years or so. He attributes it to the extensive work it takes just to prepare for and pass the physicals, written and on-road driving tests and background checks.

“Drivers have to do a 60-point test on everything they have to know,” said Weldon. “It can be intimidating.”

They’re even offering training and informational sessions to people curious about whether bus driving might work for them.

For Ion, the part-time nature of the job is what he considers one of the big issues. Ion said he and Findlay have tried offering incentives like attendance and referral bonuses.

“Some work, some don’t,” said Findlay. “But we always want our drivers to know how important they are.”

For information on upcoming trainings and informational sessions, Cranberry Bus Co. can be contacted at (814) 676-3082, Findlay said.

“We’re all in the same boat right now,” said Weldon.