Information on School Bus Contractors.

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Information on School Bus Contractors.

School Bus Contractors

At the start of every school year, newspapers and television are filled with reports about school districts struggling to find enough teachers for their classrooms. What you see far less often, however, are those same districts' challenges in hiring enough PSRPs, whether bus drivers, food service workers, custodians, paraprofessionals or others.

If anything, worker shortages in the ranks of PSRPs are more severe than those of teachers. Consider just a few examples:

In Connecticut, a school bus contractor offers a local parent group $40,000 if they can recruit 50 new drivers. The group gets nine referrals, only one of which leads to a permanent employee.
In Colorado, one school district stops serving food in its cafeteria because it can't hire enough food service workers to prepare and serve the food.
In Florida, an elementary school principal does double duty as a morning crossing guard because her district is so short of candidates for those positions.
Not every school district, of course, faces such severe shortages. And even within a district, there might be plenty of school secretaries, for example, but not enough bus drivers or food service workers. There are some clear nationwide trends, however, that were confirmed by interviews with a number of school and university human resource departments, as well as local AFT union leaders around the country.

Bus drivers and food service workers top the list of shortage jobs causing the biggest headaches for district recruiters. The reasons are clear: irregular hours (usually less than full time), seasonal schedules (little or no work in the summer), relatively low pay (both within the school system and compared to many similar private-sector jobs) and tough working conditions (especially for bus drivers, whose unresolved complaints about poor student discipline could fill volumes).

What's more, when it comes to buses, districts can't hire just anybody who walks in. Potential drivers--including substitutes--must hold a commercial driver's license (CDL), have a good driving record, and undergo background checks and drug tests, in some cases. All this for less than $10,000 a year in some districts. No wonder a survey by School Bus Fleet magazine found that more than 70 percent of school districts and private contractors report driver shortages.

"I think the worst is yet to come," predicts Marian Flickinger, president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers. Her district, for example, substantially boosted bus driver salaries last year but still faces constant shortages because drivers remain badly paid.

In Florida, bus drivers represented by United School Employees of Pasco have an unusual benefit: They get to pick their bus routes based on seniority. But as one driver explained, by the time the routes have been juggled and combined to deal with shortages, even the most senior drivers rarely end up with the routes they bid on.

Paraprofessional shortages
The Clinton years produced one of the strongest economies in American history. Unemployment and inflation fell--the jobless rate, 4 percent in December, is the lowest in almost 40 years--and wages for those other than the wealthy finally rose at decent levels. Some of that prosperity has trickled down to public employees, but unlike private employers, school districts and colleges are limited by strict budgets and have no profits they can use to attract employees.

Back to Florida. Until the last couple of years, school districts there suffered from many years of poor funding from the state legislature. State lawmakers have boosted school spending recently, but not enough to make up for those earlier, lean times, says Lynne Webb, president United School Employees of Pasco.

In addition, she adds, "I don't think legislators always think of PSRPs. They have all these great initiatives to deal with teachers, but they leave PSRPs behind." As president of a local that includes teachers and PSRPs, Webb tries to address everyone's needs. But that's not always the case in places where teachers and PSRPs are in their own unions.

This lack of recognition, respect--and decent pay--is a constant challenge for PSRPs, but probably for none more than paraprofessionals. The plight of paraprofessionals in Bethel Park, Pa., is poor but far from unique. Salaries for paras there--who are represented by the Bethel Park Federation of Teachers--range from $6 an hour (with no benefits) for health room aides to a little more than $11 per hour for veteran full-time employees. By comparison, delivery drivers for the local pizza shop make $6 an hour--before tips, points out Jan Sterrett, president of the union's paraprofessionals unit. "Is it any wonder that the district has trouble attracting people to work in these [para] positions?" she asks, adding that many open jobs attract only one applicant.

In addition to low pay, challenging working conditions can drive away paraprofessionals, especially those dealing with special-education students. In Norfolk, Flickinger says, instructional assistants who work with emotionally disturbed students are thrown into the job with no training. "They find themselves in difficult situations and are not able to cope," she says. "They are begging for more training." Not surprisingly, those positions are among the hardest to fill.

Even within the public sector, competition for jobs can leave school districts and colleges on the short end. For bus drivers in urban areas, most metropolitan bus systems will offer more pay and better hours, simply because the drivers can work a regular full-time schedule.

In Portland, Ore., a move by the city government aggravated existing shortages at the local community college, explains Martha Wolf, president of the AFT's classified employees federation at the college. The city decided to lower education standards for police officers, requiring a two-year rather than a four-year degree. Because the city pays more than the community college, many prospective campus public safety officers--a position already hit by serious shortages--are applying to the police force instead, Wolf says.

Her union does have a clause in its contract that allows jobs to be reclassified based solely on market conditions, to make the position more competitive, but it's a long process and no one has really benefited from it yet.

One thing many public-sector education jobs have going for them is decent benefits, particularly health insurance. While unacceptably high numbers of PSRPs, particularly part-time employees, do not receive health benefits, most school employees still get better coverage than their counterparts in the private sector. Many employees would undoubtedly leave if they lost that health coverage, so a continuing trend in rising health care insurance premiums is a real cause for concern.

It might get worse
If shortages in the PSRP ranks seem bad now, they are likely to worsen. Growing student enrollment, combined with many current school employees reaching retirement age, will only increase the demand. In addition, trends such as the growth in special education and English as a second language populations (groups that paraprofessionals often work with) and the shift in population away from central cities and toward the suburbs (where more students need to ride buses to school) will create additional employment pressures.

Figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveal an alarming fact: Five of the top 10 employment fields that have the highest "replacement needs"--caused by a combination retirement, turnover and demand--are in education. In addition to teaching, high-demand fields include paraprofessionals and custodial staff. Employment in what the BLS calls the educational services industry is projected to increase by 15 percent from 1998 to 2008. (See the table below for employment trends in specific job sectors.)

As PSRP job shortages get more severe, school districts and colleges will be forced to get ever-more creative in their approaches to attracting employees. Salaries are an obvious area in need of improvement, but, as noted earlier, PSRP salary increases often are low on the list of budget priorities.

A number of employers and unions are taking a serious look at their salary schedules and revising them to make certain PSRP jobs more attractive. In the short term, bonuses for new hires and for veteran employees who agree to continue in their jobs for another year have helped reduce some shortages.

In addition, because so many PSRP positions are part-time, they lend themselves to job sharing or other means of combining different roles. For example, bus drivers could work in the cafeteria during the day; paraprofessionals could work as bus monitors before and after school; or custodians could take on extra duties after their regular shifts. While some of this is going on, both with the assistance of employers and also as a necessity to make a living wage, it isn't always easy to coordinate different positions.

"We've tried to encourage some cross-training," says Lynne Webb in Pasco County, Fla., "but it's very hard to get the hours just right."

Another helpful practice is to find school-related summer employment for food service workers and others who need the income. In Corpus Christi, Texas, for example, the AFT local there has worked with the district's maintenance director, who has hired 40 to 50 PSRPs to work on jobs such as painting and other light maintenance during the summer, says Linda Bridges, president of the Corpus Christi AFT.

Stepped-up recruitment and advertising are common almost everywhere, from ads on local cable TV to help-wanted notices on school buses and billboards to aggressive neighborhood recruitment of parents who can walk to school jobs (such as food service and crossing guards) so they don't have high transportation expenses.

But the bottom line has to be competitive salaries and benefits or PSRPs will continue to leave for jobs outside the education system. Pennsylvania paraprofessional leader Jan Sterrett's comment could apply to virtually any school or college in the country: "With businesses providing larger starting wages and incentives such as retirement packages, employee discounts and profit sharing," she says, "there is no question in my mind that people who would be qualified for our positions are being lured away to other better-paying, less-demanding positions."

 Information on School Bus Contractors.