The school bus pulls up to the driveway. Yellow flashing lights switch to red as the bus rolls to a stop. The driver opens the bus door with a cheerful smile, and an enthusiastic four-year-old cautiously approaches the school bus. Dwarfed by her backpack, she grabs ahold of the handrail. Her pigtails bounce as she climbs the steps. She walks down the aisle and takes her seat. The bus driver closes the door, and continues the route, which concludes at the West Olympia Head Start/ECEAP, a part of Capital Region ESD 113’s Sound to Harbor Early Learning Programs.
The role of the bus driver is an important one, especially in early education. Sound to Harbor serves many families in lower income brackets throughout Thurston, Grays Harbor, and Mason counties, helping prepare students for lifelong learning. Many of these families do not have the means or time available to transport their students to class regularly, especially students in rural locations. Regular school bus service ensures the student will arrive safely and on time to class, every day, regardless of transportation. Research shows that regular attendance is crucial to academic success, and it starts early, forming lifelong habits.
Bus driver shortage is a nationwide concern, but the problem is especially pronounced in Western Washington, where the pool of candidates has dwindled with high employment levels, says Roger Lange, transportation program supervisor for Sound to Harbor. To combat that problem, Sound to Harbor offers some attractive incentives to appeal to new hires. Qualified applicants receive their Class C Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) with Sound to Harbor’s bus driver trainee program. Training, licenses and fees are covered, paid directly by Sound to Harbor, or reimbursed in the case of some fees.
“Average cost for a CDL is about $3,500,” says Lange. “If you come train with us, you will receive the benefit of having those costs covered, including a number of fees for testing and licensing, which amount to about $5-600.” Additionally, during their training, drivers are hired on as employees and paid at a trainee wage during their in-class training and practical driving training behind the wheel. Bus driver trainees alternate between three days of classroom instruction during the week and two days of on the road training, practicing the skills they need to become safe bus drivers prepared for weather, road conditions, and interactions with other drivers on busy streets.
The school bus fleet for Sound to Harbor is one of the newest and best equipped fleets in the area. “Any bus added to our fleet will have shoulder and lap belts available for all passengers,” says Lange. Current rules do not require the lap and shoulder belts, but Lange says the district is prepared if those rules ever change. Plus, many of the districts’ small passengers feel more comfortable on the bumpy roads with a seatbelt anyway. Not to mention, the seatbelts encourage students to stay properly seated.
In addition to the well-maintained bus fleet, Sound to Harbor drivers also benefit from having an aide on every bus. “Drivers can pay attention to the road, while the aide ensures that students are safely seated on their ride to school,” Lange adds. The aide also extends the learning onto the bus ride.
Working as a driver is particularly attractive for parents. Their work schedule lines up with the school schedule, so that they can be off work when their children are out of school on weekends, holidays and school breaks. The driver contract is also set up to benefit the employees, as it is balanced to pay drivers throughout the year, so they don’t have to worry about paycheck gaps over long breaks.
One of the biggest perks of being a driver for Sound to Harbor comes in the form of the small passengers they serve. “They are so excited to go to school and learn,” explains Lange, “Preschool age children are just lots of fun, and parents are happy because they know their children are getting a chance to really prepare for kindergarten.” Education opens a whole new world up to children, and Sound to Harbor bus drivers are there to help them start that journey.
If you think bus driving might be a good fit for you, take a look at the Sound to Harbor webpage for more information, or to browse current job openings.