Shortage of spare school bus drivers continues, but companies recruiting '24/7, 365 days a year'

The Toronto Student Transportation Group says the school boards are still getting complaints about bus service half way into the school year. Most complaints are due to traffic delays but there are still some delays caused by driver shortages.

Toronto Student Transportation Group says they haven't stopped hiring drivers since last year

Wellesley Public School was one of three schools to pilot the WSB program in the 2016-2017 school year. (Shutterstock)

Halfway into the school year, transportation companies are saying it's still a challenge to recruit new personnel as a shortage of school bus drivers continues to plague several parts of the Greater Toronto Area.

The Toronto Student Transportation Group, the organization that manages student transportation for Toronto's public and Catholic school boards, says the school boards are still getting complaints about the service.

The group's general manager, Kevin Hodgkinson, says most of the complaints are due to traffic delays but there are still some delays caused by inadequate staffing on some bus routes.

He adds the issue of bus driver shortages has improved since last year, but the recruiting process is still far from over.

"All of our carriers haven't stopped hiring drivers since last year," Hodgkinson said. "It's a 24/7, 365-day-a-year routine for them."

Hodgkinson says the issue is ongoing for all of their carriers, and every carrier in the city of Toronto is hiring.

"We have more drivers than we have routes," he said. "The problem we face is the spare pool is not where it needs to be. So if too many drivers are booking off sick or on leave of absence on any given day there may be a time where there's more routes than drivers."

The Toronto boards have 1,756 permanent drivers and 93 spare drivers who service 1,795 routes. Hodgkinson said the spare pool is not up to where it needs to be yet — ideally they would like to hire 40 additional drivers to ensure there is a driver ready to go on any given bus on any given day. 

Transportation companies are advertising in newspapers, online and a few have hired recruitment specialists to help with the process.

Hodgkinson calls it a slow improvement.

'The job has changed'

Switzer-Carty Transportation has school bus routes that span across the GTA. President Jim Switzer says the industry as a whole is experiencing challenges.

"We have found recently that we have had to go to advertising for technicians and drivers in the marketplaces," Switzer said, adding, as it stands, the company is in a good position with their driver pool, 

Switzer acknowledges the changing responsibilities in the job add to the challenge of recruiting new drivers.

"The job has changed in the last 15 years," Switzer said. "It's not the bus doing one route in the morning and one route in the afternoon. A typical driver in the GTA would probably have three routes in the morning and three routes in the afternoon, carrying anywhere between 40 and 60 kids on each one of those routes."

Switzer added the drivers around Toronto are dealing with high volume traffic and multiple schools.

But the union representing drivers says more needs to be done to address the challenges facing them.

"There's a lack of acknowledgement of the responsibilities that comes with the job," said Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor 4268, which represents 1,400 school bus drivers in the Greater Toronto Area.

"Drivers feel that they aren't being supported by the board or the operators," she said, adding split shifts and minimum wage compensation have also led to the recruitment issues faced by operators. 

Switzer-Carty Transportation says they offer competitive wages and health benefits to entice new drivers, but they still want to ensure they are hiring quality drivers who love to work with kids.

"We can't just take anybody. It takes a special person to drive a school bus," Switzer said.

Recruiting plans

Glenn Attridge,  president of Attridge Transporation, says they don't have a full complement of drivers, but they do have enough to keep delays to a minimum.

"We are recruiting and training every single day," Attridge said, noting there have been improvements in delays from last year.

Glenn Attridge, president of Attridge Transporation, says they strive to keep their name visible when recruiting drivers though various forms of media.

Attridge said his company aims to be visible through ads in papers and online. 

"We have some recruiting plans," he said.

"We're going to look at everyone's wages and see what we can do to make it more enticing as we plan towards September 2018."