The school bus transportation business is facing stiff competition from other industries that are creating one of the most intense hiring markets for a small pool of drivers — especially those with commercial driver’s licenses — and many New Jersey school districts are trying to figure out how to cope with the shortage.
The private bus companies that have contracts with public school districts have been hit the hardest.
By outsourcing to private contractors, districts could save as much as 20% to 30% by having a separate business own, operate and house the buses, while paying drivers for part-time work, said Anthony Trapasso, the third-generation owner of Orange-based Belair Transport, which operates in Essex and Union counties.
The job attracted retirees, stay-at-home moms and other people who liked the part-time schedule and extra money, he said, but the private contractors “operated pretty thin” because of the dearth of drivers, Trapasso said.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic turned the private school bus industry on its head.
When COVID hit and schools went remote, businesses like Trapasso’s were forced to lay off or furlough their drivers — and they never fully recovered.
“We’re still running at about 20% less drivers than we had pre-COVID — and where they went? I don’t know,” Trapasso said. That’s despite offering more money and benefits, which has forced Trapasso to increase the amount he charges school districts.
“We tread water because a driver will easily leave to go to another competitor for another dollar,” Trapasso said. “We’re all fighting for the same drivers, because the pool is not there and the state CDL licensing process is not easy — it could take three to six months.”
Incentivizing drivers amid high demand
Mark Toback, superintendent of the Wayne school district, said it uses private contractors and has its own transportation department, which is trying to come up with innovative ways to attract candidates to become drivers.
“The challenge is that the market is very competitive,” Toback said. “We have increased pay and benefits, and we have an in-house training program to help develop our own pool of drivers.”
Despite that, Toback said, the district went into the new school year six drivers short of a full roster.
The situation is so bad for the Philadelphia school system that it is offering parents $300 a month to transport their students to school because it has 105 school bus driver vacancies, with 210 drivers employed going into the 2023-24 school year, according to WHYY.
It’s nearly impossible to say where New Jersey’s former school bus drivers went, but the demand for drivers is at an all-time high, with delivery and ride-sharing services ramping up during the pandemic as people avoided public transportation, made more online purchases and chose food delivery instead of eating at restaurants.
UPS recently agreed to a new contract with the Teamsters union representing 340,000 workers that will provide the average full-time driver with about $170,000 in annual pay and benefits, a sign that competitive wages and benefits are needed to attract workers.
Little help from Education Department
As New Jersey school bus companies struggle to hire qualified drivers — they must have a CDL and “S” and “P” endorsements, which have additional requirements for driving school buses — it could leave room for bad actors to enter the market and cut corners.
An investigation by the USA TODAY Network New Jersey found that some private bus companies were accused of hiring people who weren’t qualified or had bad driving records or criminal histories.
The owners of American Star Transportation, a school bus company that operated in five local districts, including Paterson, face criminal charges for allegedly securing school busing contracts by submitting names of qualified drivers and bus aides but instead using people with criminal convictions, suspended licenses and inadequate credentials. A former manager for the company pleaded guilty on related charges earlier this year.
NorthJersey.com obtained incident complaint forms through public information requests from a sampling of three school districts, Paterson, Passaic and Jersey City. In those complaint forms, school bus inspectors identified more than 100 violations from at least a dozen private school bus companies between 2021 and 2022, having to do with drivers not having the proper credentials, insurance or registration or improperly combining routes.
In Paterson schools alone, American Star racked up at least 40 violations accompanied by more than $33,000 in fines in 2021 and 2022. In the spring, the district offered to pay parents on American Star routes to transport their children to school and began conducting daily credential checks of American Star drivers. District officials said they were forced to give the company the contract as the lowest bidder because it was not banned by the state Department of Education from bidding on contracts.
But the Paterson school district is no longer conducting daily checks of the credentials of American Star bus drivers, and it has not explained why it discontinued the driver credential checks that started in January.
As a result of the USA TODAY Network investigation, the state passed three laws, one of which would increase state oversight of private school bus operators by creating a new Office of School Bus Safety, but as of September the office has not yet been set up, and the Education Department has not yet hired anyone to staff the new office. The department did not respond to questions about how many applications it has received since reposting three positions in May or how many people it has interviewed.