Bus driver drought continues for Wolf Creek

“Ponoka seems to be a problem area.” - John Blood

JOHN BLOOD

JOHN BLOOD

Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) district is suffering from an ongoing shortage of bus drivers and substitutes and, despite long-term advertisement of the open positions, the situation doesn’t seem to be getting better.

“We don’t have any spares in areas around Ponoka,” said division secretary-treasurer Joe Henderson.

WCPS transportation manager John Blood says the division just recruited a few more drivers in Lacombe, but Ponoka is still in need. “Ponoka seems to be a problem area.”

All of Ponoka’s fixed routes (meaning full-time driver positions) are covered with a small number available but Blood says more are needed.

“Ultimately our goal is to recruit from across the whole division,” he added. When in need, WCPS is able to pull spare drivers from other areas to cover a route.

The situation isn’t unique to WCPS, as Henderson says many school divisions around Alberta have the same problem. “I know we’ve struggled for spares in the last couple of years.”

“We recognize there’s a lot of competing interests for drivers,” added Henderson, who feels there is already a shortage in the labour market without the specific hours and training needs for the job continuing to deter possible applicants.

“Coming to Alberta from outside, I found oil and gas rules this province . . .and consequently we have a difficult time recruiting,” said Blood.

Many of the division’s remaining drivers are older than 65 and each year they have to reapply to pass a medical, successfully renew their license and, if they’re in good standing with the division, reapply for the position to remain on the roster.

Despite the problem, Henderson isn’t concerned drivers are going to begin leaving or retiring faster than new ones can be brought in. “There’s a general shortage and the ones we have are very loyal.”

Blood does see, however, the aging population of drivers as a concern. “We may, just like any other industry, have a sudden influx of retirements. That is a concern.”

With a lack of substitutes, the division is finding it harder to always meet the needs of current drivers. “When a driver needs time off, it can’t always be granted or given,” said Henderson.

However, there are times when time off is unavoidable. In the past couple of years, Henderson says there have been times when buses couldn’t run their regular route, were late, or other drivers had to pull double routes to get the students to and from school.

If the lack of spare drivers isn’t alleviated, Blood says long-term effects could include some routes being canceled or two that run close together becoming amalgamated.

WCPS is willing to train those wanting the position as well as help them get the necessary licensing and provide S Endorsement training. “We are open to people interested in coming to work for us,” said Henderson.

Blood says those interested usually enter the division as a spare driver and work their way up to full-time. “We have a pool of spares, and as a fixed route (driver) retires or moves to something else they become available to spare drivers.”

Not everyone, says Blood, enjoys the split shifts and work of a bus driver. “But bear in mind some people like that. They work a second job or they’re farmers.”

He says others are just looking to keep social, as many of the drivers gather for coffee after the morning shift, or early retirement didn’t suit them. “And then there are ones who love the kids. They love it. They develop relationships with the children. It’s just like having their own children in a way.”

Blood says some drivers have held the same route for more than 12 years, they begin picking a child up in kindergarten and send them off as they graduate high school.

The division is also looking at an array of different solutions to try and attract a diverse pool of applicants.

For the spring, WCPS is developing a recruitment campaign and presentation targeting anyone interested in taking the job, but with an emphasis on stay-at-home moms.

“They tend not to move around a lot . . . We think they’ll give us the most stable work force,” said Blood.

He feels employing the mothers would be a win-win situation. WCPS would accumulate the drivers they need and stay-at-home moms would be working convenient hours where snow days, service days and summer holidays would be time off work, alleviating child care issues.

The mothers would also be able to bring their children on route with them, in an approved child seat with proper restraints and a waiver signed by the parent. Blood has already checked the proposal with the division’s insurer and it’s allowed by the Alberta Transportation code.