Districts give bus drivers incentives amid shortage

School districts in the Tri-Cities are still actively searching for bus drivers as the school year begins. They all say special training is in place to help make the process easier for new applicants to be successful.

Next to Richland High School sits the Richland School District bus yard. A fleet of 85 yellow buses lines the lot.

“We’re just growing,” says David Conrad, director of transportation.

Conrad has been at the district supervising since 2003. He now has a staff of more than 60 bus drivers and is looking for more.

“We always need drivers.”

As Conrad turns a key in the ignition of one the 40-foot long buses, the diesel engine roars to life.

“We’re waiting for the air pressure,” says Conrad, indicating a dial behind the steering wheel. “Now we can put it in gear.”

Each bus costs between $100,000-115,000. Conrad says that price tag makes it that much more important that drivers know what they’re doing, especially if children are onboard.

Richland, along with transportation districts in Kennewick and Pasco, trains driver candidates for several weeks. Applicants with or without experience are welcome, as long as they go through background checks, special classes, and a state licensing exam.

Other districts in the country require the exam from the beginning, so drivers with experience often have to retake the test several times.

However, in the Tri-Cities, districts train applicants from the start. After about a month of classwork and hands-on training, drivers head to the test knowing exactly what to expect.

“We have very few failures," says Ethan Schwebke, transportation manager for the Kennewick School District.

Schwebke estimates the pass rate for first-time test-takers is about 80-percent.

“In the time I've been here,” agrees Conrad in Richland. “One or two, just a handful of folks had to retake the test.”

Despite the high success rates, every district says it struggles finding enough drivers, reflecting a bigger problem nationwide.

As of Tuesday, Pasco School District said it was short 25 drivers. It said ideally, managers would hire 35 new recruits to have enough staff to compensate for sick time.

Back at the Richland yard, Conrad says seven drivers retired over the summer. Luckily, he has a new crew of eight headed in the door. However, in the past, he has had to be creative to get enough drivers on the road.

“Many of the staff inside the building are certified bus drivers,” says Conrad. “Myself, my driver trainer, two of my dispatchers…”

At the end of the day each district agrees, even the most experienced of driver applicants must pass a final test.

"Many people have driven rigs, when the cargo does not talk back to them,” jokes Schwebke. “You've gotta like kids."

Interested applicants can apply online through each school district’s website:

Kennewick School District: Bus Driver Application | Bus Attendant Application

Richland School District jobs page

Pasco School District: Bus Driver Application | Bus Attendant Application


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