Despite being an essential element to any school, finding school bus drivers has become a challenge for some companies.
“Recently in the south central part of the state, there’s been massive bus driver outages and shortages where they couldn’t get the kids to school, where the kids are on the bus for multiple hours to allow runs to double up, and that has all been due to not having enough drivers,” said Robyn Nichols, president of Nichols Bus, Inc. in Fleetville.
Nichols attributes these bus driver shortages to changes at the federal level for commercial driver’s license testing, which make them more difficult to obtain, as well as the industry being unable to offer competitive wages.
Nichols Bus is one of five bus companies contracting with the Lackawanna Trail School District this academic year. It also provides activity busing for the Abington Heights School District.
While Nichols believes Pennsylvania has been more fortunate compared to other states, she said her company has not been immune to the problems.
Nichols Bus drivers are cross-registered with other local companies for mutual help.
“We have some of our drivers and then myself registered in more than one school district, and they do the same for us,” she said. “We’re all running with just enough drivers all the time.”
Nichols Bus typically employs between eight and 15 drivers. Right now, she has eight drivers on board, but would prefer to be on the high end with 15.
“Having contractors cross over has kept it from being a real issue for schools,” Nichols said. “But even having spare people you can maybe cross over from other companies if you’re in a real pinch isn’t going to happen anymore. Then the alternative is there just isn’t enough buses to get the kids to school.”
Nichols has spoken with representatives of lobbying organizations for school bus companies about issues with the current state formula for drivers.
“Most of us only get paid state formula, which has not increased significantly in the last 20 years,” she said.
The cost of buses and insurance has increased “drastically” in this time period, she added.
Her grandfather Lyle “Shorty” Nichols started the company in 1949 with just one school bus. Eventually, her father Jim Nichols took over the company and grew it to a larger fleet of buses.
Together, Robyn and her father expanded the company to include CDL and bus driver training and testing. She took over as president after her father passed away in 2018.
Diversification has helped keep the company afloat. The headquarters in Fleetville also offers a large vehicle shop with mechanics.
“One way we’ve been able to work with the problem currently is asking those individuals to also get licenses and then have a substitute at the very least,” she said.
Nichols has been advertising for new drivers in any way possible.
Driving school buses works well for retirees, as well as anyone looking for supplemental or seasonal income, she said.
Requirements include a Class B CDL, school bus and passenger endorsements, an air brake endorsement (not required by all companies), 20 hours of state-mandated training, passing a physical exam and drug test, having a good driving record, and passing criminal record and child abuse checks.
Lackawanna Trail also requires drivers to go through training for recognizing child abuse, she said.
Rick Kordish, maintenance and transportation supervisor for Lackawanna Trail, said the district is not facing a bus driver shortage at this time. In his 14 years with the district, there hasn’t been a shortage, he added.
“I think for the most part we’ve been doing OK,” he said, noting that other companies contracting with the district currently have enough drivers to transport Trail students. “Nichols has been struggling for drivers.”
Kordish believes changes to the state formula would be an incentive for more people to drive school buses.
Shane Powers, chief operating officer for Tunkhannock Area School District, said the district isn’t having any issues at this time, but it continues to work on this area. She acknowledged that finding a sufficient number of drivers is a “challenge across the board.”
Elk Lake School District Superintendent Ken Cuomo said he has overseen transportation in the district for 28 years and securing bus drivers has always been difficult.
“However, it seems to have gotten even harder in the past eight to 10 years,” he said. “We run a school bus CDL licensing program and we still have difficulty getting drivers.”
Nichols said lobbyists have been trying to push for more money for school bus drivers.
“The fact of the matter is, the majority of us smaller contractors, which is how this whole industry started out, we aren’t doing well under the pay,” she said.
This is evident through the fact that Nichols Bus needs secondary income under the garage, and drivers take extra runs whenever they can, she said.
“I realize that the state government has been really hard on the schools for money,” she said. “It would be nice to see some additional funds come in. We always prioritize keeping the vehicles running because you have to for safety, but it would be nice to be able to funnel a little more over to the drivers, too.”
Anyone interested in driving with Nichols Bus could call 570-945-5766, email email@example.com, or message “Nichols Bus” on Facebook. Visit nicholsbus.com for more information.