Bus driver shortage hits Winter Park, schools | SkyHiNews.com

Bus driver shortage hits Winter Park, schools

by Stephanie Miller
Sky-Hi Daily News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News
ALL | Sky-Hi Daily News

First Student Inc., the transportation company that provides shuttle service for Winter Park Resort, is feeling the nationwide crunch in its quest for bus drivers.

Mike Fudge, manager of First Student in Winter Park, said the company is short roughly 15 drivers at this point. Shortages are a challenge they face every year.

“Most everybody in the transportation businesses is experiencing a shortage right now. But in resort communities, it has been a longer issue as far as nationwide,” Fudge said.

Much of it has to do with wages, he added. Eric Peoples, who is the mechanic for First Student, said wages are “a little bit low for the county.”

Starting wages are roughly $11.50 an hour, and the job is not year-round. Despite the full package of benefits the company offers, holiday pay, a $25 season ski pass, and training (First Student pays for all training, a couple thousand dollars worth), the company still falls short.

A few workers have even received training from First Student and then gone on to jobs in Summit County, where wages are higher.

Does the shortage mean First Student plans to cut bus routes this year?

“We’ll make it happen like we have in years past,” Fudge said, who added that in a pinch he can ask for drivers from other states.

First Student is a nationwide company and is the leading school bus operator in North America with a fleet of more than 62,000 buses.

While the company doesn’t foresee cutting routes, if circumstances don’t improve by the holiday season, it could be in for a hectic year. It wouldn’t be the first time for Fudge to find himself behind the wheel, or Peoples.

“There’s a lot of times where management has to go out and drive. (But) for the most part, we generally get everything covered,” Peoples added. “We’d have to be really shorthanded to cut down on routes.”

Fudge added that the recent cap set on H2B visas could also be a factor in the shortage of drivers, although First Student hasn’t hired as many foreign workers as other mountain communities, which will be affected more heavily. This will be the first year First Student will be “aggressively” hiring out-of-country drivers for the Grand County area for next year, Fudge added.

Laurie Mason, base services director for Winter Park Resort, said she doesn’t think this year’s shortage of drivers is any more of an issue than it has been in the past. She doesn’t foresee it changing the resort’s shuttle service.

“We feel real confident that there’ll be no interruption of service,” she said. “There wasn’t any last year even though there was the same kind of problems.”

Sometimes the shortage does affect First Student’s ability to do special charter service, Mason added, but the contract with the resort requires that its basic service is covered, which includes having more drivers during peak (holiday) times, Park n’ Ride service and the Granby to Winter Park service and employee shuttle.

Fudge added he has sent information to the corporate arm of First Student requesting a pay raise for drivers, although the company does raise rates by 25 to 75 cents per hour every year. He plans to attend the Grand County Job Fair this Saturday at SilverCreek to look for employees.

School district also seeing shortages

First Student isn’t the only company experiencing shortages. The East Grand School District is currently looking for roughly two to three drivers, and hiring is difficult due to wages and state requirements. The circumstances aren’t always appealing either; children on buses are often unruly due to lack of adult supervision, and driving the school bus to and from schools requires patience and a love for the job.

Starting salary for school bus drivers is $11.55 to $13.05, depending on experience, which is the average salary rate, according to Dan Stock, director of transportation for the East Grand School District.

“We have a real tough time getting the bus drivers. And it seems like once we get one hired, something happens where one has to leave . . . It’s hard to get ahead of it,” Stock said.

This year isn’t a very good year, Stock added, due to overcrowding. The school is considering adding another school bus to accommodate more students coming out of the Fraser Valley, Hot Sulphur Springs and Granby, which means hiring more bus drivers.

“We’re transporting more students all the time . . . and some buses are getting crowded. So we have to relieve that,” Stock said.

The qualifications and experience required by the state and the Colorado Department of Education are stringent, he added, and involve ongoing training. Besides needing patience to deal with a busload of 50 to 60 children, drivers also must have a commercial driver’s license, with P and S endorsements, and a background check.

“It’s not like you yank someone off the street. There’s a lot of things they have to go through. I don’t think people realize that,” Stock said.

A lot of times, Stock has to drive routes himself, he said, which takes time away from his job. There are nine drivers to cover the current nine routes, but when someone’s sick or there’s an additional field trip, Stock struggles to find a fill-in.

“So it’s either me or the mechanic driving the bus.”

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