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"We need everybody": Bus driver shortage expected to carry over into new school year

MINNEAPOLIS — The bus driver deficit continues to impact the school year. It's not a new issue; it's a persistent one.

"I hate to say it, but I think we're becoming experts in this driver shortage," Vice President of Operations at Northstar Bus Lines and American Student Transportation Nick Martini said.

Martini says his team is still about 10% short of its driver force. That's forced the schools they serve in the northwest metro area to seek help from teachers, parents, and to, in some cases, shuffle or cancel bus routes. They've become good at adapting. 

"We're going to keep doubling down on the recruiting efforts and retention effort," Martini said. "We need everybody. All hands on deck, because there's just so much demand right now."

Over in St. Paul, staffing has rebounded post-pandemic, but not fully. Before the pandemic, St. Paul Public Schools had about 270 drivers. Ahead of the 2023-2024 school year, they have 240.

This school year, SPPS will welcome three high schools — Central, Harding and Washington Technology Magnet — back to yellow bus services. However, there are still some high school students who will take Metro Transit to class.

"We're in a really good position right now," St. Paul Public Schools Director of Transportation Ben Harri said. "All the routes are with contractors. They've been practicing throughout the week."

Harri said driver wages were raised 15% to 20%, which helped his team bring more drivers on board.

"We're doing much better," Harri said. "Would we like to have more? Absolutely."

Contractors say offering higher wages is key to filling positions. Martini said they've raised wages to $25 to $30 an hour. It doesn't fix everything.

"We've licensed over 30 new drivers this summer, but that doesn't come without losses to other industries," Martini said.

It's a cautious return, with a hopeful end.

"I think there's a light at the end of the tunnel this year, where we haven't seen other years, that we may actually get above water this year," Martini said. "And have full benches of drivers again."

Contractors say retirees or anyone looking for a flexible side gig could be the perfect driver candidate. 

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