By Liz Stark, CNN
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed more people away from the profession of driving, signaling a bumpy road ahead for key industries ranging from ride-hailing to delivery services.
This issue is especially acute among school districts grappling with a shortage of school bus drivers as the new academic year begins this week for many schools across the country.
But school bus drivers are not alone, as the pandemic is also pumping the brakes for drivers in other industries. Driver shortages are impacting ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, who say the shortage is hiking rates and wait times on their platforms. Some gas stations are also running out of fuel because of a dearth of tanker truck drivers who are needed to deliver the gas.
For school districts, this shortage is becoming a significant problem as they head into the fall, though a lack of drivers has persisted throughout the pandemic.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the number of drivers plunged at the beginning of the pandemic. Between March and April 2020, the trucking industry lost more than 88,000 jobs, and transit and ground passenger transportation lost more than 185,000 in that month alone.
Nationally, the need for school bus drivers is expected to remain at “critical levels” over the coming months. This shortage will likely impact the industry’s ability to provide consistent service stretching well into the school year, according to the National School Transportation Association.
The Fairfax County, Virginia, school system — just outside the nation’s capital — is trying to fill almost three times its normal driver openings amid the ongoing pandemic.
“This is always something that we battle with, but this is the worst that we’ve seen it,” said Francine Furby, director of transportation services for Fairfax County Public Schools.
“We have more people leaving than we do people coming in,” Nick Rocha, a school bus driver in the county, told CNN.
In nearby Stafford County, Virginia, parents say kids are arriving hours late due to driver shortages.
“I think the answer is probably more money. If you pay them more, you’ll get better people. You’ll get more people,” said Nichole Dulin, a Stafford County parent.
Poor pay and tough working conditions are why trucking trade associations say many are turning their backs on the profession. Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, stressed not enough has been done to keep drivers from quitting the profession.
“Good people can find better jobs, better places that don’t have many of the drawbacks that trucking does,” Spencer said. “They look around, and they take advantage of those opportunities.”
For school bus drivers, though, there are positive signs that financial incentives are starting to proliferate across the country. Those with commercial driver’s licenses are so in demand that Fairfax County is offering new bus drivers a $3,000 sign-on bonus, in addition to competitive starting salaries, Furby told CNN. Other counties are advertising similar financial incentives.
Fairfax has even won a few retirees back and hopes this may just be a bump in the road to getting students back in school.
“We’re definitely looking forward to having more kids come in. And with that, we need more drivers coming in,” Rocha said.
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