VIDEO: 5 things to know about school buses
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Booming economy leads to shortage of metro Atlanta school bus drivers

When the economy is doing well with low unemployment, certain jobs become harder to fill. Unfortunately for school transportation directors, bus driver is one of them.

“While this is a great time to be an employee, it’s not necessarily the best time to be an employer,” said Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler. “For many workers it boils down to pay and maybe benefits. The state’s fantastic economy is pushing up pay rates.”

The state unemployment rate for July dipped below 4 percent for the first time in 15 years. At the same time, Georgia set records for jobs, labor force and number of employed residents as the state’s economy continued to boom, Butler said.

“Georgia, like the nation, is in a period of continued economic growth,” the commissioner said. “We continue to set records in all the key metrics. This is a great time to live and work in Georgia.”

The July unemployment rate came in at 3.9 percent, down from 4.1 percent in June. In July, Georgia added another 5,300 jobs to push the state’s total number to 4.54 million – a record. The state added 13,506 to the employment rolls for the month, compared to a monthly average around 10,000 for the past year.

But when people seeking work have more possibilities to choose from, many are far less likely to choose a school bus.

As the largest school district in the state, Gwinnett County is perhaps feeling the loss of job candidates more than others. With a budget allotted for 1,636 drivers, the transportation department is currently down 133 drivers.

And it’s not as if they aren’t heavily recruiting.

“GCPS is very proactive in advertising job openings. In addition to posting ads on our own website, we also place ads on job posting sites such as indeed.com and monster.com and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter,” said Bernard Watson, a spokesman for the school district. “We also advertise at job fairs, have banners up on many GCPS properties, at Gwinnett County Parks, and many apartment complexes and churches in the county are also allowing us to put flyers in their facilities. We also send flyers home with all elementary school students to see if their parents would be interested in driving.”

There’s another job fair coming up on Aug. 25.

For Gwinnett and other school districts the number of vacancies fluctuates daily. Fulton County has all vacancies filled, but would love to have an additional 10 percent to cover driver absences and needs such as field trips.

Atlanta Public Schools has the highest starting pay for bus drivers at $17 an hour for those with no experience. Drivers with the necessary skills and certifications are paid as much as $25 an hour. And most metro Atlanta school districts offer incentives. DeKalb offers a one-time $1,200 stipend while APS has various bonuses as high as $3,000.

The efforts appear to be paying off.

“In Atlanta Public Schools, we have more than enough drivers for our students’ daily transportation needs, including extracurricular/athletic activities and field trips. In just two weeks, we have filled nearly 20 vacancies, trimming the number of open slots on our bus driver roster from 67 down to 46,” said Seth Coleman, an APS spokesman. “Our goal is to completely fill all of our vacancies, which will help us to have back-up and replacement drivers ready when necessary. We have an aggressive recruitment process, featuring a competitive compensation package with increased incentives that make joining our roster of drivers an attractive employment option.”

But keeping employees is tougher than attracting them, said Butler, the labor commissioner.

Commercial drivers are in high demand. Job sites advertising for drivers in metro Atlanta with CDL licenses list pay ranges from $50,000 a year to the high six-figures.

“There’s a lot of pressure right now on state and local governments because they traditionally don’t pay as well as the federal government or the private sector,” he said. “Unless you just loving driving kids around, there are better-paying jobs out there.”

That’s where benefits and other quality-of-life issues can weigh heavily on the decision to stay or go.

“Currently, we are better staffed for the beginning of this school year versus last school year,” said Susan Hale, a spokeswoman for Fulton County Schools. “We have 768 buses that run daily routes and currently have a driver assigned to all of them. We also have an additional number of drivers that can drive a route when the assigned driver is absent.”

What helps the largest metro Atlanta school systems — Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Clayton and APS — keep drivers is full benefits. Some also offer a pension program.

Butler warned that may not always be enough. While specific data isn’t available, Gwinnett County said that last year it hired 300 new drivers and had to turn around and hire 300 more new drivers this year.

“If you have an employee with a good attitude, good work ethic, that’s highly skilled, in this market someone will be looking to hire them away.”

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