UniteGPS – Is age nothing but a number in response to today’s bus driver shortage? Some school transit officials from rural Midwest districts believe that attracting younger demographics could be a viable solution for today’s hiring hurdles.

“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 Robert “Bob” Stekel, the superintendent at Hillsboro School District in Wisconsin with around 650 students. Compared to the quality of driving he witnesses every day in this town of 1,400 inhabitants, Stekel thinks that recently-trained teenagers have proven their ability to drive safely and efficiently. 

“From sitting behind the school bus steering wheel and watching how other people drive, if people had to start all over right now and go take a behind the wheel driving test, the 16-year-olds would probably pass the test, but I’m betting 80 percent of the adult drivers in this rural area could not pass a behind the wheel driving test,” said Stekel in a recent interview with UniteGPS. “They can’t navigate a four-way stop, they run stop signs; it’s terrible the stuff that you see out there.”

Before, during, and after the pandemic, U.S. school districts have faced roadblocks in hiring and retaining qualified bus drivers. The National Association of Pupil Transportation recently conducted a survey and reported that 87 percent of school transit leaders considered the bus driver shortage to be a major problem, with 70 percent contending that it will only get worse. 

How the bus driver shortage affects rural school districts

As mentioned by Stekel in the interview, it has been two years since the last bus driver obtained a CDL in Hillsboro, despite regular advertising and financial incentives. The district continues to search for qualified drivers following the recent implementation of federal CDL training requirements, which perplex the superintendent.

“My question to the world is how do I get people to jump through another hoop to get a license when I couldn’t get them to get it when it was easy?”

Around 25 to 30 years ago, the bus drivers in Hillsboro were independent dairy farmers with free time in the morning and afternoon to cover routes. Now without traditional dairy farms around, most of the traditional bus drivers have either retired early or found steady employment elsewhere. Many went off to work at nearby grain farms or factories where the schedules are less flexible, which for Stekel, fuels the local hiring shortage.

“I honestly believe that’s where the bus drivers shortage is coming from; there aren’t enough available self-employed people that can break away to drive a bus that can do it,” said Stekel. As long as bus drivers go without full-time employment, there will always be hiring obstacles to overcome in his mind. 

Due to such circumstances, some communities see potential in attracting younger demographics seeking a potential “side hustle” to help fill in the void. In other words, people not trying to make school bus driving a full-time career.

Take the Milton School District in southern Wisconsin, for example, hiring students from the university in Whitewater to drive school buses. For these drivers willing to complete the training requirements, this becomes a reliable part-time gig available in rural areas compatible with the traditional split schedules. 

Reasons for young people to drive school buses

Another transportation leader in favor of expanding opportunities to young bus drivers is Fred Smith, assistant superintendent at Boonville R-1 School District in Missouri. In his opinion, these challenging economic times require the community to come together.

“I think there’s definitely an opportunity for expansion for those younger folks to be able to get on board and help the world, so to speak,” said Smith. “Every person matters in education, but the drivers are the first and last people that students see every day. We feel that they’re vital.”

Thanks to his community’s agricultural background, Smith considers young drivers from rural farm backgrounds to have natural talent when using a school bus. Whether from driving tractors or holding grain, Smith contends that it’s not a drastic transition for drivers both young and old in the community to operate such machinery. On the contrary, the written exam is where they potentially struggle. 

“The big argument for an 18-year-old is that they’re equipped,” Smith told UniteGPS. “They can handle the vehicle and drive. They have the skills, they’re young, their vision, hearing, everything is fantastic. Whereas we’re on the other side of the fence, I’m 60 years old, so I don’t hear quite as well and a little slower and reactive.”

Student-Driver Programs

What these conversations reinforce is the potential for students to serve as school bus drivers in times of desperate hiring needs. This may sound like a bold statement but 16 and 17-year-olds could drive school buses in over 20 states prior to the 1960s. 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, inevitably leading to more accidents.

With young drivers involved in more accidents, the majority of U.S. states eventually raised the minimum driving age for bus drivers to at least 18-years-old. In turn, the student-driver program ceased to exist. Such legislative changes particularly affected rural school districts with smaller hiring pools to choose from.

“My brother-in-law was one of the last of the senior high school bus drivers that they had in several places in the Midwest,” said Dave Daley, member of the Aging Services Advisory Council and Committee on Accessible Transportation. He worked as the general manager for First Transit in San Francisco as well as Program Manager for RideSource service with Lane Transit District in Eugene, Oregon. “But those probably won’t work anymore because they relied mostly on farm boys like me who have been driving since they were 12-years-old.”

According to an Education Week article from 1985, these former student-drivers would receive testing and certification in order to qualify. Some states like South Carolina even had teachers and guidance counselors recommend students to the program, which many saw as prestigious.