Severe Bus Driver Shortage Hits the Basin

By Sarah Snyder
NewsWest 9

It's harder than ever to find folks willing to climb in the big yellow buses and drive kids to school. Schools in the Basin are doing whatever they can to find new drivers.

School officials in Ector County say hanging a sign off a school bus is their most successful marketing tool.     

They drive it all over Odessa in hopes of catching the eye of drivers who might want a new career.

"I know for a fact, the bus driver situation is very severe," Willie Taylor with the Texas Workforce Commission, said.

When they're fully staffed, Ector County has 160 drivers and right now there's 23 openings.

"I think it's getting worse because when you look at the service industry, it's a very competitive market," Taylor said.

"I think we've faced a unique challenge this school year due to the boom in the oil industry," David Morris, Director of ECISD Transportation, said. "We've lost several drivers to the oil business, and other businesses in town, so that's posed an even greater challenge to us to try to keep fully staffed this school year."

If you're a kid on a bus, you won't notice a difference in routes, but you might see a different face.

"There could be, on one of our open routes, three different faces in a weeks time because we have to shuffle employees around," Morris said.

Some employees are working as many as 15 hours a week extra.

"We're in a big enough hole right now with the shortage of drivers that we're using our mechanic staff and our office staff, many of them are driving routes on a regular basis in order to be able to cover our 23 openings, so that adds an extra load and burden to our department," Morris said.

Basin schools are trying to stay competitive, so much so, that number is higher than ever. In the past 3 years, wages have gone up about ten to twenty percent in our area.

"I think some of it is, we're in an area where oil and gas is driving our service industry, and they're competing salary-wise," Taylor said. "$9-$12 is not a bad wage, but I would say, some of it is drug-testing, not being able to pass that background check, and just not enough applicants."

But it's not just the wages that deters some potential drivers.

"You've got to have a lot of patience to deal with students, and I think that's one of the issues we're dealing with," Taylor said.

Ector County says even in the shortage, they're not planning on changing any of the requirements like a solid background check, drug testing, and training. Right now, they're targeting retired folks.

"We really do love to have retired folks come and drive, because they really do bring so much experience with them and working with kids," Morris said.

School officials say just in the past few days they've begun to see a change.

"Within the past week as we've seen the price of oil going down, and the announcement of the Flint Hills closure, we've started to see an uptick in the number of applicants," Morris said.

Over the holiday weekend, the bus with the "Wanted" sign was parked outside Permian High School.

And on Monday alone, they've had quite a few bus driver applicants who saw the sign, and walked into the office.

The transportation department says they plan to use the bus more in the future.