The shortage of school bus drivers has been a continuing concern for school districts across the United States, impacting the safe and timely transportation of students. Jeff Walker, owner of Northern Express Bus Service, shares how he’s navigating their statewide school bus driver shortage and what his transportation company does to maintain high bus driver retention rates.
Navigating School Bus Driver Shortages at Northern Express Bus
Like many school bus operators, as well as school districts, Northern Express Bus has grappled with school bus driver shortages, primarily driven by retirements and difficulties in finding suitable replacements. Contrary to the stereotype of school bus drivers being exclusively older individuals, Jeff highlights the diverse demographic of Northern Express' drivers, which includes college students, stay-at-home parents, working professionals, and retirees.
“We have a very mixed demographic of drivers,” Jeff states. “We have drivers from college kids to retirees and everywhere in between. And on our retiree side, we have everyone from retired farmers to retired doctors. There is no one-size-fits-all or stereotypical driver, at least not when it comes to our organization.”
This organization's unique perks, such as allowing drivers to bring their children to work and providing the option to take buses home if specific criteria are met, have contributed to attracting a varied group of drivers.
“We've got younger, stay-at-home parents, both mom and dads. One of the perks that we offer is bringing your children to work with you and not having to pay for daycare,” Jeff said. “If they have off-street parking and it's within the ordinance, they also can take their bus home. So, we try and recruit them using that."
Driver Recruitment Strategies that Work
Northern Express Bus Service relies heavily on word-of-mouth referrals as part of its recruitment strategy. Jeff finds this approach more effective than traditional advertising methods like banners, newspaper ads, and social media posts.
“Our biggest way is word of mouth. Unfortunately, advertising doesn't work; we don't get a lot of applicants that come in from that,” Jeff states. “[With] word of mouth, it has to be somebody that they trust saying, ‘Hey, it's really a good job or really a good company to work for.’”
To incentivize their current drivers, the company offers a referral bonus, which has successfully helped bring new talent on board. In one case, a driver earned $3,500 in referral bonuses in one year by bringing in multiple new drivers, further emphasizing the effectiveness of this recruitment strategy.
Retaining Drivers Through Appreciation
Jeff emphasizes that retaining drivers goes beyond monetary incentives. “We focus 100% on appreciation and providing perks to them to keep them motivated, here, and happy. The one thing I've learned over my 24 years in transportation is when it comes to drivers, money isn't everything. It's the appreciation,” Jeff explained.
Gifting Company Merchandise and Gift Cards
Northern Express Bus Service prioritizes appreciation and offers various perks to keep drivers motivated and happy. These include simple gestures like company-branded hats and more significant rewards such as winter coats and gift cards during the holiday season. “You'd be amazed at how much the drivers like to have a company hat,” Jeff said. “And as a first-year driver with us, being in Wisconsin, you get your winter coat and that's your holiday present. And our tenured drivers get a gift card for the holidays.”
Appreciation Weeks and Award Parties
Regular drawings and appreciation events, like an end-of-year awards party, foster a sense of belonging and recognition within the team.
“We do drawings and perks throughout the year. Appreciation Week in Wisconsin is in February and we do daily drawings, terminal drawings, companywide drawings—plus provide a whole lot of food along the way,” Jeff explained. “You'd be amazed at how much a dozen donuts or pizza can keep a group of 12 happy. We do our big end-of-the-year awards party; it’s a fully catered event for employees and their guests.”
Beyond the parties and company merchandise, sometimes it’s as simple as some kind words to make school bus drivers feel appreciated. According to Jeff, “Showing that we appreciate them and telling them 'thank you,' as simple as that sounds. We've got an awesome crew and it's just a matter of trying to get more of them, as well as keep our existing ones and our new oncoming ones happy and behind the wheel.”
Creating a Sense of Community Among School Bus Drivers
Getting to know each driver as an individual is important to Jeff and stands as a benchmark for the growth of his company.
“We're a growing company and only five years old. I’ve been asked before — how big do you plan on getting? I don't know the answer to that, but what I can say is when I can't walk into any location and know every driver by face or when I'm doing payroll be able to picture every single person I'm doing payroll for and know two things about them, that's what I know we're getting too big because we've lost that mindset.”
Tapping Into Technology to Retain Drivers
Jeff also found that having the right software system to support the daily needs of school bus drivers has helped retain drivers through increased job satisfaction. But it hasn’t always been easy. Northern Express Bus Service faced numerous challenges with its previous routing software, which included frequent crashes, unannounced (and problematic) updates, inadequate customer support, and a lack of customization flexibility. These challenges led the company to replace its former system with TravelTracker-Routing.
By choosing to implement TravelTracker-Routing, Northern Express Bus Service has:
- Saved Money: Reduced downtime and overtime expenses have resulted in significant cost savings for the company.
- Increased Reliability: The software's reliability and ease of use have reduced stress and anxiety among the staff.
- Improved Efficiency: The software's speed, functionality, and optimization capabilities have allowed the company to explore new routing possibilities — including taking advantage of previously unexplored opportunities for route efficiencies — that have led to enhanced overall operational efficiency, as well as a reduction in the number of drivers needed.
Jeff's advice to other organizations considering TravelTracker-Routing is clear: “Don't let sticker shock get to you — don't go solely based on price,” Jeff explains. “It [TravelTracker-Routing] is extremely worth it, and there's not one bad thing that I can say about this software.” Its functionality and reliability, combined with TransACT's exceptional customer support, make TravelTracker-Routing a valuable long-term investment.
Putting These Driver Retention Strategies Into Practice
Managing school bus driver shortages and improving retention are complex challenges, but organizations like Northern Express Bus Service demonstrate that it's possible with the right tools and a commitment to employee appreciation and satisfaction. Innovative routing software like TravelTracker-Routing can also play a pivotal role in reducing driver stress and improving route efficiency, setting the stage for a brighter future in the world of student transportation.
Interested in learning more? Schedule time for a brief demonstration and discover how TravelTracker-Routing can benefit your district.