For kids, it's back-to-school time -- if they can get there

Last Updated Sep 19, 2016 11:04 AM EDT

Kids around the U.S. have their new backpacks, notebooks and other gear for the new school year -- now all they need is a way to make it to school. 

Many school districts around the country are facing a shortage of bus drivers, causing delays for parents and children needing transportation, and in some cases forcing administrators to cancel routes altogether.

School officials and bus company operators blame the dearth of drivers on tougher new commercial driving license rules enacted in 2015. The rules require, among other things, that applicants be able to lift the hood of a bus and diagnose mechanical problems, a hurdle for many applicants. 

Other challenges in recruiting school bus drivers, who must contend with the daily stress of dealing with youngsters, include low pay and an improving job market that offers alternatives for employment.  Nationwide, the average wage for school bus drivers is $14.70 per hour, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“This is an issue that the school bus industry has dealt with pretty consistently, but it has been worse in the past couple of years,” said Thomas McMahon, executive editor of School Bus Fleet magazine, a trade publication.  “It’s not something that people are rushing to do.”

A School Bus Fleet survey in 2015 found that 92 percent of districts reported trouble filing driver vacancies. That’s up sharply from when unemployment was soaring around the height of the recession in 2009, when 58 percent of districts had trouble finding drivers.

Ed Thomas, founder of New Jersey school bus transportation company Trans Ed, isn’t able to bid on some new business because of a lack of drivers, with many job candidates failing the new licensing test or not bothering to take it.

“A number of us are sitting here with empty buses because we just can’t find the drivers,” he said, adding that he lost five drivers at the beginning of the school year and occasionally has to get behind the wheel himself to fill the void.  

Officials in Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools had to cancel nine bus routes on Friday because of a driver shortage, the fifth time that’s happened this school year, according to according to Jennifer Brislin, a spokeswoman.  The district, Kentucky’s largest, continues to recruit social media and job fairs, she said.

The driver shortage is so bad in the Bentonville School District in Arkansas that district officials have asked teachers to lend a hand if they are licensed to operate buses. Four teachers answered the call, perhaps lured in part by the district’s recent move to raise driver wages to $15.43 per hour and its offer of monthly $50 bonuses for perfect attendance.

“They wanted a little extra income and wanted to come in and help us because we have got such a shortage,” said Chris DeWitt, the district’s transportation director, adding that the district hasn’t had a full staff of drivers for the past 12 years.

That’s making life harder for local families, with kids having to wait up to 45 minutes for a bus ride home.

“It’s not only an inconvenience for the students -- it’s also an inconvenience for the parents who have to try and schedule things right after school,” DeWitt said. “ We would love nothing more than that, [but] we just don’t have that possibility.”

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.