NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - While the first few weeks of school can be rough for students and teachers, adjusting to a new year is often just as hard for school bus drivers.
New Hanover County Director of Transportation Ken Nance said the first couple weeks of school are always a time of observation and retooling, with routes changing slightly depending on what kids need to be picked up and from where.
This can lead to late arrival times or crowded buses.
Nance said he hopes parents will understand that things will even out, and that he isn't worried about the headaches long-term.
What is somewhat of a concern, however, is the continued shortage of bus drivers.
As of the first week of school, Nance said the county had six vacancies to fill for regular bus drivers. On top of that, he said, there are 10 drivers out on medical leave, meaning he must find 16 people to fill in every day.
Nance said he can usually find substitute drivers or pull teachers or other staff in to drive the buses, but that it does put a strain on the system.
New Hanover County isn't alone in its need for more drivers.
"It's a very difficult job to recruit for," said Kevin Harrison, who serves as section chief in the Department of Public Instruction's transportation services department.
The requirements to be a school bus driver are significant, he said, and often the pay doesn't match the level of commitment it takes.
Drivers are required to not only have a commercial driver's license (CDL), but they must also have a School Bus Driver's Certificate from the Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as a "S" and "P" on their CDL, for "school" and "passenger" respectively.
The certificate program is a three- to five-day class, taught by DMV officials, and drivers must obtain a score of 80 percent or higher to pass.
Then, they go through additional DMV training, Harrison said.
New Hanover County held two of these certification classes this summer: the first in July, and the second from Aug. 27-31.
Nance said 46 people signed up for the July class, but only 10 or 11 ended up attending. Out of that, only four passed the written exam.
In August, the story was the same, with 38 people signing up but only 10 showing up, and only six or seven finishing the class all the way through.
"We have a lot of people showing interest, but when it comes time for the class, they don't show up," he said.
Nance echoed Harrison's sentiment about the difficulty of recruiting bus drivers.
Both Harrison and Nance said they think that the economy plays a big part in the level of interest in being a bus driver.
"I think there's huge competition," Harrison said. "Whenever the economy improves, and the jobs become more available, the school bus driving job doesn't look as attractive."
In addition to the certification requirements, Harrison said the hours and pay are also less attractive.
School bus drivers work split shifts, driving early in the morning and then again in the midafternoon.
They also only get shifts 180 to 185 days a year.
Harrison said that means the ideal individual is someone with nearly completely open availability, but who is willing to work for much less than they could get at another driving job.
"That's a very, very narrow group of people," he said.
According to a report DPI presented to the North Carolina General Assembly, transportation directors across the state reported that low pay, insufficient hours and the long break between driving shifts were a significant recruitment hurdle.
The report indicated that for school systems similar in size to New Hanover County and its neighbors, bus drivers on average work four hours or less each day, and earn between $12 and $17 per hour, depending on the district and the driver's experience.
Across the state, Harrison said, this has led to school systems combining the duties of drivers and teachers, assistants and other school staff.
In fact, school systems New Hanover County's size reported 50 percent or more of their bus drivers had another job in the system either part time or full time.
On top of lower pay and fewer available hours, Harrison said that being a school bus driver is often much more difficult than other commercial driving jobs.
Drivers are not only responsible for operating the commercial vehicle, but they are monitoring up to 70 students at a time while also making sure that students are safely entering and exiting the bus.
On top of that, drivers also need to be paying attention to the mechanical and operational condition of their buses.
"It's a very difficult job to be a school bus driver," he said. "We ask bus drivers to do things we wouldn't ask of any other employee."