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Why better pay alone isn't enough to end the school bus driver shortage

A recent survey found 91% of school districts say the driver shortage is their top problem. This is despite better pay and benefits for new employees.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools recently raised starting pay for bus drivers to $17.75 an hour and is offering a $1,000 bonus for new hires, but it could take even more than those incentives to fix the shortage of drivers impacting schools for months. 

CMS said it needs about 40 people to fill open bus driver positions, and held a hiring event at its offices on Northpointe Boulevard on Thursday, Nov. 18. If extra pay and better benefits won't help find new drivers, what will, and why are so many school districts facing a bus driver shortage?

Let's connect the dots

DISTRICTS NEED DRIVERS

A recent survey by several national school transportation agencies found this is a problem for nearly 70% of districts in the South. Over half of districts described their shortage as "severe" or "desperate," with 91% of respondents saying they've had to alter routes to elementary schools. 

Nearly two-thirds of districts said the bus driver shortage is their number one problem or concern. Just 1% of school districts surveyed said the driver shortage isn't a problem for them. 

Many bus drivers were forced to find other work during the COVID-19 pandemic while students were learning from home. Convincing them to come back is proving to be a hard sell. 

Better pay and benefits help ... kind of. Districts say wages, hours and benefits are the top obstacles to hiring new drivers. 

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HIRING IS DIFFICULT

Recruiting new bus drivers takes more work than hiring for other positions. For starters, the list of requirements is long and not just anyone can hop behind the wheel. 

To be a bus driver in North Carolina, you need a clean driving record, a commercial driver's license (CDL) and certification from a three-day training class. 

Adam Johnson, transportation director for CMS, told Wake Up Charlotte in October that the district will help hired applicants get their certifications. He said the typical hiring process is around 52 days unless someone is already licensed. 

CANDIDATES GO ELSEWHERE

Many qualified candidates don't want to go through the hassle when they can simply drive somewhere else. 

For example, Arizona raised its average starting pay to $18 an hour. That's higher than what most districts in the Charlotte region are offering, including CMS. 

Contact Sarah French at Sarah@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.

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