LIGONIER — When school bus driver Lisa Shields talks about the kids who ride her bus at West Noble School Corp., it can bring her to tears.
“I consider them my family,” Shields said.
School bus drivers not only make sure kids get a safe ride back and forth to school, but they’re the first and last person a child sees during the regular day.
Because of that, both drivers and administrators see their workers in the big yellow buses as instrumental in taking care of students.
“When I get a child on the bus, some of them I’ve had for quite a long time, you don’t know what they’re leaving in the morning or what they’re coming home to,” Shields said.
This bond is what is bringing her into year 32 of driving the bus.
But nationwide and in the four-county area, there’s a demand for bus drivers that isn’t being met.
It’s for a number of reasons, some specific to each school district or the economy of an area.
Out west in Noble County, West Noble Transportation and School Safety Director Brandon Chordas said the district’s 31 routes all have drivers, but some of them are substitutes who are working daily right now.
“We are short,” Chordas said. “We are relying heavily on our subs.”
That problem will soon be alleviated, though, since a few more drivers are training and will be on the roads in the next month or so.
For now, Chordas said he held a meeting with all of his drivers at the beginning of the year, telling them how valued they are and how crucial it was they show up to work every day.
“It might be really, really difficult if they call off,” Chordas said. “They understand the predicament we’re in.”
Chordas identified a couple reasons why people might not be interested or able to drive routes.
One, which is true for all bus drivers, is that the hours are unique.
Bus drivers work for a couple of hours in the morning to pick kids up and more in the middle of the day, with optional hours to drive for sports, band or choir. It’s not ideal for someone with a 9-5 or other full time job.
Another, which is pertinent to West Noble in Ligonier, is the prevalence of factories and jobs people who could be bus drivers could also get.
“I know the economy is really good, and in this area, we compete with all the manufacturing jobs,” Chordas said.
Pay and benefits, as with most every other job, makes a difference in attracting people to work as drivers, too.
Most schools pay their drivers on a daily basis, plus a certain amount per mile of their route.
For example, shorter routes at West Noble pay a $13,600 salary, while longer routes pay $20,100. Both have benefits, too, including health insurance.
In Kendallville, East Noble pays its drivers by the day at a base rate of $88.36.
Just like its neighbor to the west, East Noble has a driver shortage, too, which has made it get “creative” with hiring, Transportation Director Josh Buhro said.
One different thing the district does is employ “super subs,” or substitute drivers who are paid a daily rate and report to the bus garage each day in case a driver can’t make it in that day.
“If somebody calls in last-minute, we don’t have to put anybody in who’s never driven the route before,” Buhro said.
Buhro is part of a group of transportation directors that examine activity in northeast Indiana, including the four-county area and Fort Wayne.
A trend he and others are seeing, he said, are a few reasons why people who have an available schedule don’t want to drive.
One is that they don’t think they will be good with kids, which Buhro recognized is not easy, but people overestimate how difficult it is to work with students.
Another is that people are scared of driving a big bus down narrow, neighborhood streets, which he also said isn’t as hard as people think it is.
In fact, at a job fair last spring, Buhro set up a course with orange cones and let people test drive a school bus through them.
“Everybody who did that actually enjoyed driving the bus,” he said. “Lots of those fears they have ended up being unfounded.”
Although the shortage of drivers is focused on more when school starts back up in the fall, Buhro said it’s always a problem.
Looking further northeast, some schools in Steuben County are having trouble recruiting drivers, too.
MSD of Steuben County Gary Puckett said they’re experiencing somewhat of a driver shortage, but they have enough substitutes to fill in until they can hire more people.
“We’re always looking for drivers,” Puckett said, referencing a large sign near an entrance of Angola that says those interested in driving should ask about the job.
However, Puckett said the shortage at MSD is small compared to the district where he worked previously. There, both he and his mechanic would regularly drive bus routes because they were so short-staffed.
MSD pays comparably to other schools in the region, with a base pay of $79.53, but Puckett said he thinks the schedule is the biggest hurdle to hiring for the district.
But, he said those kinds of hours could appeal to certain people.
“It’s a great job for retirees or veterans,” Puckett said. “It takes a special person who has a unique type of schedule.”
If you like kids, Puckett said, this is the job for you.
“These drivers get attached to these kids on their route,” he said.
At Prairie Heights, a district straddling the LaGrange County and Steuben County border, Transportation Director Gaylon Wisel said he has no driver shortage.
Prairie Heights runs 22 routes and employs seven substitute drivers, which is a few more than other area schools, who usually have about three or four. It pays a base rate of $83 per day.
Other schools in LaGrange County report they have no driver shortage at all.
David Bowman, transportation director at Lakeland Community Schools, said he chalks up his full staff to a couple of factors.
“Sometimes I think it’s our benefit package, our pay,” Bowman said.
Lakeland does offer higher pay than some other area schools at a base rate of $96 per day. Drivers also get benefits like paid time off and the ability to keep the buses at their homes.
“We appreciate what our drivers do. They travel thousands of miles a year,” Bowman said.
Another district in LaGrange County has no shortage of regular drivers or substitutes. Brian Bills, director of transportation at Westview, said his district has nine substitute drivers.