Challenges And Opportunities Facing Today’s School Bus Operators And The Industry

By David Richards, IAPT President, and the IAPT Board of Directors

There are many rewarding careers in many industries for people to pursue. I would argue that one of the most rewarding of all is working in the student transportation industry. Regardless of the position one holds, the rewards are great, including the smile of a child as they load or disembark from the bus.

Like many industries, school bus operators, whether a self-operated school district transportation department, or an independent contractor, are all struggling with a shortage of drivers. In order to become a school bus driver there is a very comprehensive training and certification process that must be followed. It can take a few weeks to over a month to move a prospective driver through the training process to become a CDL licensed driver and all the parts and pieces that the licensing process includes. This process is governed by both the federal and state government which creates challenges for everyone in the industry. This same issue also allows us to be confident that we have the best trained drivers transporting our students safely every day. While this can be a challenge, I would argue that it can also be an opportunity. We need to sell ourselves to the portion of the public looking for careers, as well as to the public in general, to instill the confidence in the community that we indeed do have the best trained and safest drivers on the road.

What many don’t consider is the challenging role of a bus driver and their impact on the overall operation of a transportation department. A driver is also often the first and last person connected with a school who a student has contact with every school day. In many cases, they are also the only adult from the school district that a parent sees regularly. The professional school bus driver will safely transport students, while building a relationship with those students, while never looking at them other than glances in the mirror. It takes a special person to build trust with a child with their back to the child.

Some of the challenges of staffing have also created opportunities in other areas. We have all had to find every efficiency we can to ensure timely transportation of students. This may include routing software system upgrades, communication system upgrades, as well as better methods of initial training and professional development. While we have all had new challenges over the last few years, the methods of communicating with staff and the parents we serve have improved greatly, and we have embraced technology as in industry to find creative methods to accomplish professional development, which is critical to maintaining a professional staff.

Technology is something that is constantly changing regardless of the industry. Student transportation is an area where, just because the bus looks the same as it has for many years, this is not your parents’ school bus. In some ways, technology is easy to accept and implement. An example would be the recording devices on buses where the camera and microphone quality has improved dramatically, just like our cell phones. With the life span of a bus being around 12-15 years, the choice of fuels can have an impact for more than a decade. While many people are making the choice between electric and fossil fuels, another big challenge for the school bus industry is the same choice, except that we are making the choice on a much larger scale. Navigating the grant and funding options is something that many have never had to deal with on this scale. And of course, all within this industry are trying to be good stewards of the resources from multiple sources that allow us to perform the services we do.

The student transportation industry has an outstanding safety record and that is due to the professional driver, but also due to the fact we use the safest vehicles there are to transport students. This is a proven fact and needs to be promoted to the public. We also help reduce traffic by moving large numbers of students with one vehicle. While people may disagree when they are behind a bus, we are ensuring the safety of our most precious cargo and reducing emissions, which is another opportunity to better the community we live in and serve.

The Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation (IAPT) was formed in 1973 and is celebrating 50 years as a leader in the pupil transportation industry. The organization strives to promote safe and efficient transportation of students across the state of Illinois, as well as working with national associations. IAPT collaborates with various state agencies on the development of regulations related to pupil transportation through a seat on the Illinois Pupil Transportation Advisory Committee. The IAPT Board of Directors provides continuing education opportunities through an annual conference, trade show, and bus Roadeo they host the third week of June every year. Contact: Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation, P.O. Box 181, Havana, IL 62644. Phone: 309-425-3702. Website: ILAPT.net.

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