Bus driver shortage

Children load onto buses outside Mankato East High School. Both Mankato school bus companies said they just barely have enough drivers. Photo by Pat Christman

Be kind to your kid's bus driver. There may not be a backup. Mankato's school bus companies say they've had a tough time finding drivers this year.

“We just barely squeaked by,” said Chad Yaeger, owner of Yaeger Bus Service. “We could use a few short-trip drivers.”

He admitted that occasionally he, the company mechanic, or even his retired father drive routes in a pinch. Certainly, this year was tougher than recent years in filling their routes, he said.

“Mankato has had a lot of growth and new businesses,” he said. “It looks like just about everybody is hiring.”

Across the state and nation, school bus companies are reporting shortages. Shane Johnson, manager for Palmer Bus Service of Mankato, said he’s heard 900 more school bus drivers are needed across the state.

Palmer is constantly looking for additional drivers, Johnson said, and they started this year “razor thin.”

Low unemployment makes a job with odd hours and more requirements less attractive. School bus drivers must pass two written tests and a behind-the-wheel exam to get a commercial driver’s license, pass a criminal-background check, a driver history check, a drug test and a physical exam. They are placed on a random drug-testing pool for the state Department of Transportation.

Jerry Kolander, director of business affairs for Mankato Area Public Schools, said the district appreciates the difficulties in finding enough drivers.

“It’s not an easy job to drive a large bus with a number of students and be on time, with traffic, construction and tight schedules,” he said. “For us, they transport 3,400 students a day and just to get them on time or to the connection is a feat.”

And that’s not even thinking about sports, both practices and games, and field trips, which there are more of during the warmer months. For example, Kolander said, all of the 6th graders in the district were taking a trip to the Mahkato Mdewakanton Association’s Pow Wow at Land of Memories Park on Friday.

To attract more drivers, Yaeger said he’s tried wage increases, different types of bonuses including a hiring bonus and bounties for current employees to bring in new drivers.

“It doesn’t seem to make a difference,” he said.

The best advertising is still the company’s bus with a sign in the main Mankato West parking lot during the summer. Palmer Bus Service has also tried a plethora of incentives, but Johnson said the best incentive is flexibility.

“Drivers can decide they only want to sub or fill in or drive trips,” he said. “We’re very, very flexible with people’s schedules.”

Even still, drivers do leave throughout the year.

“It’s wonderful that our economy in Mankato is doing well, but it’s difficult for us,” Johnson said. “There not a lot of people who want to drive a school bus now.”

Follow Nancy Madsen on Twitter @nmadsenmfp.

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