HARRISON – When people talk about getting back to normal after roughly 18 months of pandemic limitations and restrictions, one of the first things that comes up is having children return to schools and the all-important in-person learning. Part of that school day structure includes something taken for granted by many: the to-and-from bus ride. Brings back memories, right?
Yet, the only way those rides can happen is if buses have drivers, and therein lies the rub for First Student-Harrison. Ann Whitaker, location manager, told the Cleaver it has long been a challenge to keep the buses staffed with enough drivers, and that it’s not unheard of for a driver to wait until the last minute, then decline returning to the job. This is its own challenge, but finding employees post-pandemic adds another layer – one proven to be no easier at the local bus garage than at many businesses across the country. Whitaker said people just aren’t in a hurry to get back to work, something she attributes to the abundance of pandemic financial assistance. And now First Student is left needing four to five drivers to fill its staffing roster.
First Student has been working diligently to get the word out, including walking in the recent Harrison July 4th Parade. There, drivers walked sporting their “Ask Me About My Job” T-shirts – because, after all, who would know more about the job than drivers themselves?
Next came the brainchild of Whitaker and driver Jamie Dove: draw attention via a dunk tank event. That, they said lit up the imaginations of other drivers, and soon a “Pie in the Face” feature was added to the “Dunk A Driver” recruitment event held July 9 and 10 at MichiganWorks! in Harrison. The drivers turned out to do their best to show their positive attitudes about their job, and to share their enthusiasm for the work itself – the work of transporting children safely and reliably, every day of the school year.
“We’re trying anything we can think of,” Whitaker said. “We had the bus in the parade and handed out quite a few flyers. It’s definitely a job you have to love – I’ve done it for 30 years and loved it.”
“Even if we’re not getting people out to apply, we show the community that bus drivers aren’t a bunch of stuffy old people that are driving around writing their kids up,” Dove said.
He added that, for him as a parent of school age children, the job provides a perfect schedule. Whitaker agreed, saying she was always able to be home when her children were home. Dove also noted that drivers have the option to bring their children to work with them so they can ride on their parent’s bus, which can save on day-care expenses.
Thus, the dunking began, and continued, and continued, and continued over the course of two afternoons: commitment. The attitude and industry of these drivers brings to mind the college-days phrase “What do you do when your team wins? Party! What do you do when they lose? Party HARDER!” And, in terms of dealing with lost staffing, when the “right” thing to do in order to support children is to make oneself a target – that is definitely “partying harder.”
Whitaker said First Student did have an enabler for their hard partying – the Harrison Area Fire Department. She said Fire Chief Chris Damvelt kindly drove a tanker to the site and filled the dunk tank. Whitaker said she really appreciated that assistance.
Whitaker noted the driving position’s benefits include wages of $16 an hour, something considered a highly respectable wage for a part-time job. And, while a part-time job may seem limited, Dove noted there are additional time opportunities for drivers: athletic competitions, field trips to other schools or events, and also charter trips. The 2017 Rosie the Riveter Challenge at Eastern Michigan University-Ypsilanti was one such charter trip. She said the charter trips really help in the summer when school is not in session.
“Who doesn’t want to go support their schools at sporting events?” Dove said. “I loved it, it’s fun!”
Whitaker said the job, which requires a Commercial Driver License, has the added perk of First Student paying for the CDL training/license. That can be a considerable investment on the part of the company.
“We pay for everything,” she said. “We pay them to do the training, so they’re going to come out with a CDL. The company figures $5,000-$7,000 just to train somebody.”
Whitaker and Dove said that while drivers are paid for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, the routes frequently only run 1.5 to 1.75 hours.
Dove also spoke to employment flexibility with the bus driving job.
“There’s a lot of opportunity,” he said. “We’ve had drivers that worked at Steve’s [Country Market], and Steve’s works with the schedule of the bus garage – you work there in the middle of the day, and you’ve got full time, basically.”
Whitaker noted one key component of the driver’s job is post-route procedures which are designed to ensure no sleeping child is left on the bus – something the company takes very seriously.
“With our company, it’s No. 1,” Whitaker said. “You leave a kid on a bus, don’t come back – you’re done.”
So, an employer with the highest concern for child safety, the flexibility of part-time hours, decent wages, opportunity for additional work, and a CDL certification which stays with the employee. Add to those the opportunity to work with people whose energy and camaraderie could float a ship, and the question becomes: “Where do I sign up?”