MENASHA (NBC 26) — As the new school year is off to a start, many bus lines are struggling to find school bus drivers. Lamers Bus Lines says it's experiencing a severe drivers shortage - a problem that's been years in the making and exacerbated by the pandemic.
"We started noticing the shortage about three years ago," said Michael Weihing, the manager of Lamers' Fox Cities terminal. "Before the pandemic hit we were already experiencing a drivers shortage. A lot of our early retiree group, we didn't have a lot of applicants in that area and that's typically where a third of our drivers come from."
According to the Wisconsin School Bus Association, school bus transportation is used by at least 75% of the K-12 student population in Wisconsin. They say both contracted school bus transportation companies and district-run operations have been struggling to find people who are willing and qualified to drive school buses since before the pandemic and the problem has only grown worse.
They say this shortage of drivers jeopardizes the ability to get 750,000 students back and forth safely to school and other activities. WSBA members project this critical level shortage to continue beyond the 2021-2022 school year.
Lamers is one of the bus lines that transports students for the Appleton Area School District. The district cited Lamers' drivers shortage in an update to families after the district experienced significant delays involving bussing during the first two days of school.
The problem isn't limited to school districts. While Green Bay Metro says it's not currently suffering a drivers shortage, GBM has begun establishing a "drivers pool” of potential hires to make it easier to fill open positions in the future.
“We will put that pool out there, establish that pool and then for the next 12 months or so as there are position openings from retirements and things like that we can pull candidates from that pool,” said Patty Kiewiz, the GBM transit director.
Weihing says that while Lamers is struggling amid the shortage, many of their office staff have begun driving busses in order to cover all the bus routes.
"There's several communities that have to limit their number of actual bus routes," Weihing said. "We're fortunate here to have a large office staff so that we're able to fill those openings with our office staff."
Since many of the office staff are driving to make up for the shortage, he says it makes it difficult for Lamers to communicate with students' families. He says Lamers expects to resolve the issues with delays in school bussing by early next week. For now, the Appleton Area School District is encouraging families to make alternative plans for their child’s transportation.
"We're not able to have the phone response that we want to right now where we're able to get back with people in short order so there's a lot of messages that we need to get back to," Weihing said. "The shortage makes it very difficult to fulfill everything we're asked to do. We get it done, but it can be a challenge."
Weihing says Lamers will need to hire about 55 more bus drivers in order to once again be fully staffed. Interested applicants can apply at lamersgo.com or apply at Lamers' Fox Cities Terminal.