Lack of bus drivers leaves local company shorthanded

By Ashley Haynes

Aug. 29, 2019

Mary, left, and Sandy Syburg are the owners of Oconomowoc Transport Company, Inc.
File photo

OCONOMOWOC — There are dozens of people that help with the various aspects of educating a child. That includes the bus driver tasked with getting your student to and from school.

A bus driver can be a friendly face that a student sees each morning and afternoon. But an ongoing shortage of drivers has made it more difficult for transportation companies to fill positions.

For Oconomowoc Transport Co. Inc., the school year is starting with a shortage of five drivers.

“We’re trying everything,” said Mary Syburg, vice president of operations. “My husband and I bought the company back in ’94 and I’ve been with it since 1990 and I have not seen a shortage this bad, ever.”

Syburg said OTC’s current lack of five employees affects approximately 400 students who don’t have a regular driver.

She explained the company is able to cover the shortages for now through the use of stand-by drivers and some office staff members — including herself — but that will soon become more difficult as the school year picks up and more trips and sporting events require drivers.

Syburg said she can’t quite pinpoint why the driver shortage has gotten so bad, but did say it is more difficult to gain the appropriate licenses than in years past.

“There’s more regulations for drivers. Like right now, we have to do criminal background checks. The CDL (commercial driver’s license) has become more difficult than it was 30 years ago. We had a driver come in and apply and she couldn’t drive because she has sleep apnea.

“They’re becoming more strict, which is good for safety,” Syburg said. “I’m all for that.”

After being cleared during a physical, an applicant must pass a written test for a learner’s permit before they can train on a bus. There is then a two-week process before they can schedule an actual road test.

According to a 2018 survey from School Bus Fleet magazine (which was sent to school districts across the country), 36% of respondents said the driver shortage rated worse than the year prior and 24% of respondents referred to the shortage as severe.

Added incentives

At OTC, Syburg said the company has upped some incentives to pique the interest of potential drivers.

OTC has increased certain benefits, including offering a $500 sign-on bonus and a finder’s fee if an employee brings on an extra driver.

Syburg said the company’s 401K has shifted from a 1.5% to a 3% match.

Other local transportation companies, such as Dousman Transport, also offer various incentives to bring on new employees.

Peggy Nieuwenhuis, recruiting/education manager, said that this is something the company has always offered.

She said Dousman Transport has also attempted to make the learning process less “dry,” as she said sometimes it can be difficult for applicants to get through all of the technical reading and materials.

“Luckily, we haven’t been hit as hard as some other transportation companies, maybe because of our smaller size,” Nieuwenhuis said.

A flexible schedule

Francis Schindler, a retired OTC driver of over 20 years, said driving buses was ideal for him due to the flexibility the schedule allowed him. Drivers can choose to work just mornings, just afternoons, both and even school trips.

“I’m in ministry and stuff like that so to have a split day works out well. I’ve got the flexibility to do other things during the day,” Schindler said.

He added that being there for students as another adult who cares and is willing to listen is another way bus drivers are strengthening community ties.

Schindler said not having enough drivers burdens the rest of the staff members in other areas.

Syburg said having a regular bus driver enhances the overall experience of the school year for a student.

“The students have a familiar face with that driver. That’s how they start their day in the morning,” Syburg said.

In the meantime, companies like OTC are having to rely on backup drivers to cover all of their routes.

Syburg said there have been a few people who filled out applications this week and she hopes the ongoing shortage of drivers is a short trend.

“We’ve kind of fulfilled every venue we can to get drivers in the local area,” Syburg said.