Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) is experiencing a spare bus driver shortage and that is having the biggest impact on those who love the job most, the other drivers.
Mark Sperber was hired as a mechanic for the WCPS Ponoka bus garage almost a decade ago. However, on top of his mechanic duties, he’s been driving a bus for Ponoka schools for the last eight years. “Usually I’m not driving, but because we’re so short on people, I have a permanent route.”
“It just takes time away from being at the shop,” he added.
Sperber says normally two mechanics are in the shop at a given time. However, with a driver drought that can’t always be the case. This is taking its toll on other drivers, especially during the winter as more buses break down or get stuck. “With me being out here, there’s only one in the shop, so it’s affected response time.”
Each month around 10 busses are pulled from commission for a short time for their bi-annual inspection, which, if it doesn’t happen, will pull them from use until it does.
As more buses experience trouble in the cold temperatures and deep snow, drivers are having to use their spare buses because there isn’t enough manpower to complete the inspections and fix the others in a timely fashion.
Before working for WCPS, Sperber drove a fertilizer truck for a fertilizer plant in town, as well as handling trucks for different farmers. He says the biggest draw for a bus-driving career is the social aspect and opportunity to interact with the children.
Sperber says patience is key when dealing with the students riding the bus and as a father of four, he’s had lots of practice. “The job is fairly exciting because it’s different every day.”
“You know some of the kids or your own kids are going to school . . . So that makes it easier,” he added.
Another highlight of the job is something he feels may deter others: the responsibility of the well being of each child on the bus. Sperber says he loves the feeling knowing he’s trusted enough by families for this job. “It’s a fairly big responsibility and when you can do it without any incidences, it makes you feel pretty proud.”
Two reasons Sperber named as possible causes for the lack of spare drivers are the economy and the pay. He says, while the time spent behind the wheel versus the pay is good, the responsibility given to drivers versus the pay is harder to swallow for some. “And I don’t know if the wages have kept pace with other industries.”
“There’s a lot of stress and a lot of responsibility. I guess it’s a wage thing . . . But it’s a public service so it’s hard to demand higher wages.”
As the economy drives the price of living higher, Sperber feels those who used to be attracted to the job, such as farmers and their wives, are now looking for something more lucrative.
He believes farmers are having to work harder on the farm and the wives want a full-time job. “Just with the way times have changed, people don’t want part-time jobs anymore.”
Sperber feels WCPS just needs to find the right people for the job, but with the economy there’s less and less of them to draw from.
Jane Bowie has been driving buses for 31 years and after all that time she’s still engrossed by the job. “My biggest thing is that I’m in love with my job. I’m amazed I’m still enjoying it.”
“I push it. I deliberately tell my friends,” she added, saying those interested in becoming a spare should talk with other drivers.
And with each passing day, the arrival of a spare is wanted more and more. “It’s virtually impossible to get a personal day. When you’re sick, Wolf Creek does everything they can to find a spare. Even our mechanics have spared,” said Bowie.
Bowie grew up on a farm driving grain trucks and other equipment; bus driving was a natural next step. “Bus driving is ideal for farm wives because it can fit really well between your other jobs.”
Pay is based on distance driven and she also feels pay is good for the time drivers spend behind the wheel. However, the shifts can “break the day up pretty badly.”
“But we’re (farm wives) used to having our day broken up,” she added.
For Bowie two of the greatest challenges of the job are the weather and discipline problems, when they come along. Bowie’s rural route takes her northwest of town past Don Laing Trailers and she says she’s lucky with the wonderful kids she gets to pick up.
Each pick up takes only a minute, and it’s a 30 second wait to see if there’s life at the top of the driveway. But Bowie knows the children and families so well it only takes her 30 seconds to know if someone will appear to board or not. She knows who may have exams that day, who has parents that sometimes provide a ride to school and who plays hockey and sometimes gets to sleep in.
The children board the bus with a good morning from Bowie, who treats them as if they’re her own children or grandchildren; looking after forgotten mitts and worrying about their safety on the ice. “You don’t need to run. If I know you’re coming I’ll wait for you,” she told to young boys as they climbed aboard.
“The interaction with the families and children is pretty special. That’s partly because I’m a grandmother and great-grandmother,” said Bowie.
Once or twice a year, the bus drivers take a gift over to the Ponoka County grater operators as a token of their appreciation. “The grater operators are our best friends in the entire world. Without them we wouldn’t be driving out in these bad conditions.”
Along with Wolf Creek transportation management staff, Bowie and Sperber believe the job of sparing would fit nicely with stay-at-home parents. “You’re off when the children are off, so it’s a good job in that sense.”
And a parent bringing their children along to allow them to work is another idea she strongly supports. “We’ve fought for that for years.”