Scott Cochran is eager to get behind the wheel of his school bus every day at Palatine Township Elementary District 15.
With a steady stream of friendly riders, good pay and solid benefits, Cochran says there is plenty to like about the gig in his 10th year at Illinois’ second-largest elementary district.
“Nobody really wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to be a school bus driver,'” said Cochran, 53, a former banking professional. “I came here during a time where I needed the job. And I’ve come to find out, hey, I really like this, because I love the kids, it’s really flexible. I can get stuff done during the day if I want to go shopping, do my laundry — oh, my gosh.”
But not everyone sees the upside of driving kids to school, according to student transportation associations and other experts. School districts in Illinois and across the country are struggling to attract drivers, with industry officials citing low unemployment and a strong economy among the reasons.
For students, that can mean longer rides and more time waiting for a bus to pick them up. In some instances, drivers are dropping off one group of students after classes, then returning to school to pick up more kids.
Along with boosting pay, private bus companies are offering perks such as cooking classes and wellness programs to attract and retain drivers.
“We try a little bit of everything,” said John Benish Jr., president and chief operating officer of Oak Brook-based Cook-Illinois Corp. “We let some drivers take their buses home so they can get to work every day. We’re very easygoing as far as taking time off.”
Benish, whose company has 18 subsidiaries serving Chicago-area school districts and employs about 2,000 drivers, said other perks include parties, walking clubs and opportunities to see a nurse practitioner. He said he’d like to have another 140 drivers on staff.
At Palatine-based District 15, Director of Transportation Thomas Bramley said he began the school year short 20 or more drivers per day. The district-operated busing system should have at least 150 drivers to get 10,500 children to school daily.
“Added on to that, we had six long-term sick drivers, which brought our numbers down,” Bramley said. “Then, of course, you have daily absenteeism. So, there were times at the beginning of the school year we were down to under 130 (drivers).”
The district was able to attract more drivers after starting pay went from $17.18 an hour to $19.18 on Jan. 1, to go along with medical and pension benefits for working about six hours a day for 9½ months. Bramley said 142 drivers now are employed and another nine are in training.
Drivers for Benish’s company earn up to $19.50 an hour, plus medical benefits and bonus opportunities related to safety and perfect attendance.
Industry experts say one problem in finding or keeping drivers, who must be 21 or older, is that the job typically doesn’t offer 40 hours a week. Then there is the Illinois Department of Transportation criteria they must meet, such as obtaining a Class B commercial license, passing a drug screening, having a clean driving record and going through training.
“We used to lose drivers to other (school bus) driving jobs,” said Benish, who is president-elect of the National School Transportation Association. “But now, we’re losing drivers to everything. Full-time work, Lyft, Uber, a lot of delivery companies out there. You see everybody wants stuff delivered now. And you see everybody’s hiring.”
Although Elgin Area School District U-46 is OK for now with 343 drivers, it continues to seek applicants in an effort to sustain transportation for roughly 27,000 students a day, spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. To recruit drivers, the district has yard signs touting the job throughout U-46’s boundaries.
Stevenson High School District 125 in Lincolnshire, which contracts with First Student Inc., has bus drivers for all 71 routes serving about 1,900 students, spokesman Jim Conrey said. Nonetheless, First Student held a job fair in unincorporated Prairie View near Lincolnshire last week to attract more drivers.
Stevenson helps First Student keep the driver numbers up.
“For example, we are working with our Sodexo (food service) employees to see if anyone is interested in driving a morning route or an afternoon route depending on their scheduled shift,” Conrey said. “Also, we pay for training of our special education aides to get their certification so they can drive a bus for athletics and other co-curricular events.”
Cochran, the Palatine District 15 driver, said there could be a misperception about the job that’s keeping potential drivers away.
“People are just afraid of kids sometimes,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to drive this big bus. How am I supposed to do that?’
“And (after) they get here and go through the training, they say, ‘Oh, this isn’t so hard. Oh, I really like this.’ That’s what happened to me.”
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