Jenny Lagadinos (center right), a driver and trainer for the Marysville School District, gives instructions to Sue Hubbard (left), of Granite Falls, as fellow trainee Margaret Mitchell (right), of Arlington, looks on while training in Marysville on Thursday, July 27. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Jenny Lagadinos (center right), a driver and trainer for the Marysville School District, gives instructions to Sue Hubbard (left), of Granite Falls, as fellow trainee Margaret Mitchell (right), of Arlington, looks on while training in Marysville on Thursday, July 27. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Shortage of bus drivers has school districts scrambling

MARYSVILLE — Three school bus drivers in training had their first day behind the wheel Thursday.

They adjusted mirrors and seats. Instructor Jennifer Lagadinos guided them as they reversed Bus 75, weaving between orange cones.

There have been driver recruitment and training efforts in school districts all over Snohomish County this summer.

There’s a shortage of bus drivers and substitute drivers, here and nationwide.

Trainers and transportation directors note that medical requirements, training and a challenging test to get licensed discourage people. The shortage also likely is related to an economic upswing.

When unemployment rates are low, part-time industries suffer, said Doug Chisholm, general manager of transportation in the Everett School District for Durham School Services. Durham, a company that contracts to provide school bus service, has 105 drivers and 11 trainees in Everett.

Last school year, drivers with daily routes averaged 6.8 hours per week day, Chisholm said.

Durham hopes to hire up to 15 drivers in the next couple of months. The offer for new hires includes paid training, $19.76 an hour starting wage and a possible signing bonus. Employees must pass criminal background and driving record checks, a drug screening and medical examination.

Though Durham offers paid training, school districts often do not. That’s a funding need, according to supervisors in Marysville, who say applicants have walked away because training is unpaid and testing and medical screenings can be costly.

The Marysville School District needs more substitute drivers, but is doing better than districts that call in mechanics, dispatchers and supervisors to drive. It’s something Marysville has done in the past, nearly emptying the transportation center of staff some days to keep buses running.

It’s toughest during fall and spring sports, when buses are needed to haul teams to games.

The lack of drivers, especially substitutes, means that districts are competing for workers.

Training is under way in Edmonds, transportation director Ben Mount said. He expects to know in mid-August how many more positions he needs to fill. It’s tough to recruit because it’s a challenging career requiring skills that can be used in jobs that are less stressful, year-round and don’t involve a split shift, he said.

Banners, fliers and ads have helped the Lake Stevens School District recruit. The job is popular among stay-at-home parents who want to match their kids’ schedules, transportation supervisor Delana Reeves said. The district also is seeing more retirees looking for part-time work.

Obtaining a license to drive a school bus is time-consuming and can cost several hundred dollars.

Without enough drivers, things get hectic. In Arlington last year, there were four drivers out at one time, which stretched staffing thin, transportation supervisor Cheryl Power said. The district used to get up to a dozen drivers in training at a time. Now, they have four.

In Marysville, substitute driving has been popular among retirees, but requirements related to diabetes, sleep apnea, blood pressure and medications are making it harder for them to qualify, transportation manager Traci Tobler said.

Last year, she advertised through a job search website and received a lot of applications, but none worked out. In general, one of every three serious applicants in Marysville go on to become drivers.

Transportation supervisor Kim McAbee said it’s a rewarding job. Drivers interact with students and become part of the community.

The transportation industry as a whole could do better by helping with test fees, medical screenings and benefits to keep drivers healthy, such as gym memberships, she said. She also would like to see more consistent pay between school bus drivers and transit agencies.

Many people underestimate the importance of bus drivers, Tobler said.

“Students change teachers every year or every term, but bus drivers are very territorial,” she said. “They’ll keep the same route. We have bus drivers who drive children or even grandchildren of the people they first drove.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

School bus drivers needed

Durham School Services (Everett School District) is hosting a job fair from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 4 at 1304 80th St. SW, Everett. Bring resume. Applications on site.

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