Mary, left, and Sandy Syburg are the owners of
Oconomowoc Transport Company, Inc.
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
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
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
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
“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
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.
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
Syburg said the company’s 401K has shifted from a 1.5% to a 3%
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
“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
“We’ve kind of fulfilled every venue we can to get drivers in the
local area,” Syburg said.