School districts face stiff competition from oil, gas industry for good drivers

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By Jeremy Johnson

FORT LUPTON — Following big news Aug. 11 of the resignation of Weld Re-8’s superintendent was a brief but troubling discussion regarding the future of school-funded student transportation along the Front Range.

Responding to a board member’s inquiry, outgoing superintendent Mark Payler told the panel that Fort Lupton and other Colorado school districts are facing a real challenge to find certified bus drivers because of a workforce shift to the more-lucrative oil and gas fields.

It’s no secret that the oil and gas industry pays employees handsomely, right down to those folks who haul water, waste or other industry byproducts. In fact, for all of O&G’s controversy, good, high-paying jobs – and lots of them – have been one of the hooks that the industry has always hung its hat on.

Consequently, Payler told frequently frugal board member Shannon Rhoda that it’s going to be a mounting challenge to fill the drivers seats of Fort Lupton’s bus fleet unless Weld Re-8 can start paying those drivers wages comparable to what they would get working in oil and gas or with other area school districts.

When Rhoda asked Payler if they had figured out why they were having a problem finding bus drivers, the recently resigned superintendent succinctly answered “Yep.”

“I can tell you exactly why: We’re in competition, along with everybody else on the Front Range … for bus drivers, but also with oil and gas and all the other industries that are essentially paying much better than we pay a lot of our drivers,” he added.

Payler said the shortage is further evidenced by signs adorning buses along I-25 in Adams County, and more like it in the St. Vrain area, that have been advertising for bus drivers all summer long.

“Everybody’s short drivers,” he surmised.

When Rhoda, who tends toward a lean approach to fiscal challenges, asked how to “solve the situation,” Payler said the answer was not-so-easy: pay more.

“Unless you can compete with the salaries in the oil fields, which are dramatically higher than what we offer, that’s going to continue to be the reality,” he said.

Board President Mike Simone, who works as a medical professional with a practice in Dacono, said the issue is bound to get worse as physical exams for commercial drivers become more stringent.

“You know, it’s not an easy physical exam anymore,” he said. “There are strict regulations … and there’s going to definitely be a lot less people who qualify.”


By the numbers

Even using slightly outdated, 2012 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the disparity between commercial tractor-trailer drivers and bus drivers – transit, commercial or school drivers – is easy to see.

According to figures from May 2012, the latest available on the Bureau’s website, there was a nearly $9,000 gap in median salaries favoring tractor-trailer drivers ($38,200 a year, $18.37 an hour) over bus drivers ($29,550, $14.21) – and that’s assuming those bus driver positions are full-time, which they often are not. The median salary for school bus drivers is also about $1,000 lower than the overall occupation’s median salary – city transit drivers or commercial bus line drivers tend to make slightly more than school bus operators.

Both occupations require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and additional training. According to the Bureau, bus drivers require a one- to three-month training program, while big rig drivers and other commercial CDL operators can be required to attend “truck driving schools.”

In 2012, there were 1,701,500 tractor-trailer and other heavy drivers in the United States, compared to 654,300 bus drivers – more than 484,000 of which were school bus drivers, according to statistics. 

The bureau predicted a 10-year job growth of about 9 percent – or 57,900 – for bus drivers, while those projections were quadruple for tractor-trailer drivers: the industry was expected to grow by 11 percent or about 192,600 drivers by 2022.