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Published in Talent
The Rapid’s central station in downtown Grand Rapids. The Rapid’s central station in downtown Grand Rapids. MIBIZ FILE PHOTO

Buses idle, services trimmed as transit companies scramble for drivers

BY Monday, July 25, 2022 04:43pm

A nationwide bus driver shortage has forced school districts to cut routes and scheduled transit services to trim trips. 

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave states the option to waive portions of the commercial driver’s license skills test while bus companies across the country have increased wages, bonuses and benefits and upped their recruitment game in hopes of filling positions. But after floods of bus drivers were laid off because of COVID-19, only a trickle of them are coming back to the industry.

“The shortage of workers is an issue most industries are facing, and we are not immune to it,” said Deborah Prato, CEO of The Rapid, which operates the Grand Rapids metropolitan area’s public transit system. 

For Owosso-based Indian Trails, a statewide bus company that operates the Michigan Flyer line connecting Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit, the shortage of drivers has made operating at full capacity virtually impossible. The company lost about 95 percent of its business at the start of the pandemic and furloughed about 75 percent of its employees. Now the company is struggling to get all of those employees back. 

Indian Trails is currently about 20 drivers short, and in 15 months of searching has only been able to add one to two drivers every three to four months. 

“We just cannot get enough drivers,” Indian Trails President Chad Cushman told MiBiz. “We’re having to turn away business every day because we don’t have enough drivers.”

Cushman said hiring drivers has become the company’s first priority after safety. The company has increased wages 25 percent since the pandemic began and is offering sign-on and referral bonuses as well as increased paid time off. The company also is investing in new job fairs and advertising in hopes of closing the gap. 

Although difficulty finding drivers isn’t a new phenomenon in the industry, the size of the gap and duration of the search has led to unprecedented changes, according to transit officials. 

“Prior to the pandemic, even though we were always challenged to find drivers, it never prohibited us from operating at full capacity,” Cushman said. 

Meanwhile, the shortage has fundamentally changed how the company does business. Before the pandemic, the company always sold tickets and charters based on the number of buses available. These days, it sells based on the number of drivers available. The pandemic also has affected the scope of the services it can offer. The Michigan Flyer used to make 14 round trips per day; it now makes nine. Indian Trails’ daily schedule has been trimmed from 38 to 39 trips per day to 30 to 32, and the company offers fewer charter options.

Cushman said the shortage is caused by “a combination of a lot of things,” including early retirements and career changes. For various reasons, bus drivers stopped driving during the pandemic and they’re not all coming back.

For now, companies are focused on boosting their recruitment efforts.

The Kent Intermediate School District plans to offer its school bus driver certification course eight times in the coming school year, graduating new drivers for local districts like Forest Hills Public Schools, which has ​​increased bus driver pay to $21 per hour and offers $1,500 sign-on bonuses after being forced to cut multiple routes last year. Kent ISD contracts its bus services through Dean Transportation Inc.

Cushman said Indian Trails has seen “a slight uptick in (job) applicants,” but he doesn’t expect the company to be at full capacity soon.

“We are constantly looking at different recruitment opportunities and have recently seen significant upswing in applicants,” Prato said of The Rapid, which recently enrolled 11 potential new drivers in a bus operator class and is seeking to fill another class.

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