March 2017, Vol. 2

Bus driver shortages: Where are we now?

by Tracy Morris
In many communities across the state, there are school buses draped with “now hiring” banners screaming for attention.  It’s pretty difficult to find a district that doesn’t need at least one more bus driver. In December 2015, we posed the question, “Is relief on the horizon for bus driver shortages in Texas?”  The answer then was no, even as the oil and gas boom ground to a halt. The New York Times reports that Texas, the most productive oil-producing state, saw a loss of 98,000 oil jobs from the 2014 peak, but have bus driver vacancies been filled, and has the rocketing pay increase slowed? As oil prices rebound, but not nearly as quickly as they went bust, what might we expect?
A 2015 School Bus Fleet magazine survey found that only 6 percent of national school bus contracting companies reported having enough drivers. The same survey in 2016 found that some progress had been made, with 11 percent of national school bus contracting companies now reporting they have enough drivers. However, that improvement was seen in those experiencing only moderate shortages rather than a reduction in severe shortages. In 2015, 28 percent of the respondents indicated they were at severe shortage levels, and by 2016 that had actually increased to 31 percent. 

Pay trends

Between 2012–13 and 2014–15, there was a clear correlation between increased bus driver pay and ESC regions in oil-rich areas, based on responses to the TASB Salary Survey.  During that time, the five ESCs with the biggest increases in their districts’ median bus driver pay saw an average increase of $1.66 per hour, compared to just $0.65 per hour for the remaining regions of the state. 
None of the biggest movers from 2014–15 appear in the top five movers of 2016–17.  The ESCs realizing the biggest increases in their districts’ median bus driver pay are 16, 5, 4, 8, and 9.  Bus driver median pay in these five regions increased $1.76 per hour on average, $0.10 per hour more than the largest increases seen during the oil boom. During this time, the rest of the state saw an average increase of just $0.60 per hour for bus driver pay.  
Bus Driver Median Pay Increase
201213 to 201415 (2 yr period)—Top 5 Regions
Region 18 Midland +$1.26
Region 3 Victoria +$1.27
Region 17 Lubbock +$1.40
Region 15 San Angelo +$1.92
Region 14 Abilene +$2.45
Bus Driver Median Pay Increase
201415 to 201617 (2 yr period)—Top 5 Regions
Region 16 Amarillo +$1.33
Region 5 Beaumont +$1.36
Region 4 Houston +$1.62
Region 8 Mount Pleasant +$2.02
Region 9 Wichita Falls +$2.45

In the past two years, districts statewide provided a median pay increase of 5 percent to auxiliary employees, while almost half of regions (9) saw an increase in bus driver pay of greater than 5 percent. The smallest group consisted of two regions where pay increased by less than 3 percent. The remaining regions (9) saw increases between 3 and 5 percent.
For nonexempt jobs, like bus driver, one of the biggest determining factors for getting someone in the door is starting pay. The past three years saw some big moves there as well. The areas realizing the biggest increases in their districts’ median minimum bus driver pay are Regions 1, 13, 12, 15, and 17. ESC 15 leads the group with an increase of $2.99 per hour over the two-year period.
Bus Driver Median Minimum Pay Increase
2014-15 to 2016-17 - Top 5 Regions
Region 1 Edinburg +$0.85
Region 13 Austin +$1.13
Region 12 Waco +$1.19
Region 17 Lubbock +$2.60
Region 15 San Angelo +$2.99

Other considerations

It doesn’t look like the effort to increase pay is over. While improving wages alone is important, it isn’t always the deciding factor for an applicant to come or not, and it usually isn’t the reason most employees choose to stay or go. Districts are looking at other ways to enhance their offerings to employees.
Spring ISD announced in early February that their board of trustees approved an increase in bus driver pay for 2017–18 to $16.50 from the current $15.12 per hour, but the district also plans to reduce day care fees by half for drivers using the on-site day care center. Other districts have also turned to looking at the salary more holistically than simply increasing wages. Many districts have identified ways to provide drivers with more hours than the typical split shift offers, creating dual roles to serve other business needs of the district. Some have even extended the working calendar by having bus drivers fill the roles of maintenance worker and custodian during the summer. Offering referral bonuses, perfect attendance incentives, and vacation pay, are other ways some districts are combating driver shortages. Finding other ways to serve the needs of the local workforce is paramount to recruiting and retaining bus drivers.