Could the reintroduction of student driver programs from the 1950s be a meaningful solution to the hiring shortage?

UniteGPS – We at UniteGPS have a vested interest in helping school districts overcome the growing bus driver shortage. Over the years, we have seen that most hiring solutions coming from communities as well as state and federal governments won’t be substantial in the long run. Just consider the 2021 survey conducted by the National Association of Pupil Transportation reporting that 87 percent of respondents said the bus driver shortage was a major problem, with 70 percent believing that it’ll worsen.

student driver programs

To tackle this complex situation and find pragmatic resolutions, a UniteGPS team member conducted 15 interviews with transportation leaders including superintendents, transit directors, and bus drivers. 

One common theme throughout these conversations was that various rural school transportation leaders supported the idea of hiring younger bus drivers in times of dire hiring needs, like Robert “Bob” Stekel. He serves as the superintendent at Hillsboro School District in Wisconsin with around 650 students and sees the merit in considering high school students as qualified bus drivers. 

“The fact of the matter is that 16-year-olds are fresh out of training, they’ve done the behind the wheel with the instructor, and they are probably safer drivers out there than most adults,” said Stekel, whose school district has desperate hiring needs. In comparison to the quality of driving he sees every day in this town of 1,400 inhabitants, Stekel believes that recently-trained teenagers can drive safely and efficiently. 

Why do we need student drivers

To better handle the shortage in rural communities with fewer candidates, perhaps the answer to the dilemma lies in legislative action to make teenagers eligible to drive a school bus. In other words, seek the means to change the legal age of driving a school bus that varies across state lines. Based on these informative conversations and extensive research, UniteGPS ultimately contends that the best way to solve the hiring shortage is to seek legislative action in creating student driver programs.

Yes, the Department of Transportation may have temporarily waived the “under the hood” portion of the federal CDL exam, and some school districts have even started to provide bus drivers with retroactive hazard pay stipends for their essential service during the pandemic. While there are undoubtedly success stories, they aren’t making a permanent difference as students still can’t find a way to attend class due to dissipating route coverage.

In hopes of ending fringe efforts to solve the bus driver shortage, UniteGPS wants to provide school districts with our number one suggestion: reimplement the student driver programs from the 1950s!

Student Driver programs of the 1950s

While not common knowledge nowadays, high school students once “were selected, strictly trained, and thoroughly supervised” to operate school buses. According to David Soule, a former pupil transportation specialist at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the system worked out to have students drive a bus for up to a year and a half before graduation. 

Prior to the 1960s, over 20 states employed 16 and 17-year-olds to drive school buses. Wyoming even allowed 15-year-olds to sit behind the wheel of school buses before the “baby-boom” era of the 1960s put more drivers out on the road. With a subsequent enrollment boom and more cars, this inevitably led to more accidents, despite most student drivers having almost flawless driving records at the time.

Mostly as preventative measures, the majority of U.S. states eventually raised the minimum driving age for bus drivers to 21. In turn, the student driver program ceased to exist. Such legislative changes particularly affected rural school districts that used to employ upperclassmen to transport students on buses. Many of these rural Midwest students grew up operating farm vehicles and naturally knew how to safely maneuver a school bus.

Call-to-action for school districts

As school districts navigate new federal CDL training regulations and scramble to attract new bus drivers with increased wages paired with benefits, now more than ever communities must start to think and act strategically to sustain in-person learning. All things considered, this is why we are encouraging U.S. school districts and transportation leaders to start gaining the legislative means to hire qualified students as bus drivers.

Due to the severity of the hiring shortage, we are encouraging school districts to change the course of history by delegating certified high school students to operate school buses. In order to achieve this, however, local communities will need to collaborate with state representatives and other political influencers for optimal impact. This will involve identifying the correct state representatives to co-sponsor bills in support of school districts.

For example, legislators in New Jersey recently drafted two comprehensive bills to better prepare school districts for facilitating CDL training and confronting the school bus driver shortage. Coming from the 30th Legislative District, they intend to help communities fill routes, transport more students, and secure smoother operations.

If school districts were to take this call-to-action to heart, this could ultimately be a catalyst for a grassroots movement where communities empower students to gain skills as bus drivers. There’s no light way to put this but UniteGPS encourages industry leaders to consider taking legislative action to ensure long-term solutions.