Sacad Guled has struggled to find bus drivers in the pandemic economy. "I drive every day, even though I’m the CEO of the company," he says. Credit: Courtesy of Marwa Mohamed and Coherent Trans Inc.

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School districts across the United States are struggling to find bus drivers.

In Minneapolis, the driver shortage has gotten so bad that the school district officials are offering money to parents willing to drive their kids to class. “By doing this,” reads a note to parents, “you’ll be freeing up some space on the bus for students who cannot provide their own transportation.”

In St. Paul and North Dakota’s Grand Forks, according to an MPR News story, schools have turned to commercial vehicles to fill the void.   

School districts have always struggled to recruit and retain drivers. Last year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many students remained in virtual learning, sending bus drivers off the job. This fall, many aren’t coming back.

Several factors drive potential applicants away from  school transportation jobs, according to a recent national survey. First, these drivers can only count on working five or six hours a day. Second, the process to secure a commercial driver’s license, which is required for school bus drivers, has been taking applicants weeks and even months, due to pandemic slowdowns. Third, even if workers get a license, they may switch to driving jobs for companies such as Amazon, Target, and Walmart, which offer better pay and more hours.    

Sacad Guled, who runs a student transportation company in the Twin Cities, has been dealing with the driver shortage problem since the arrival of the pandemic. His company, Coherent Trans Inc., operates more than 50 yellow buses and minivans that transport students to charter schools in the Twin Cities.

As part of our “Stories from the Pandemic” series, produced in partnership with Minnesota Transform and the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Sahan Journal interviewed Sacad about how the shortage has impacted his company and what he’s doing to respond to the crunch.  The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

The internet is flooded with stories about a nationwide school bus driver shortage. As a CEO of a student-transportation company, how are you dealing with the challenge?

Before the pandemic, if we wanted a driver, we would post the position online. It was a quick job description and a note saying, we’re hiring. Within hours, we would get 10, 20 applicants for that one position. Then, we would pick the best candidate. It was that easy. 

“Before the pandemic, if we wanted a driver, we would post the position online. It was a quick job description and a note saying, we’re hiring. Within hours, we would get 10, 20 applicants for that one position. Then, we would pick the best candidate. It was that easy.”

Right now that’s not the case. Not many people are responding to our job postings.

How has that impacted the company’s workflow?

A lot. For example, I drive every day, even though I’m the CEO of the company. I’m supposed to take care of more important responsibilities.  But here I am driving. I have a route every single morning. I go to Brooklyn Center and pick up kids. I can’t find a proper driver to fill my role. 

Also, a few times, we had to call partner schools and tell them that we’re short drivers and that it would take a little longer to pick up the kids. Some of our drivers have to do more than one route now. Like, they pick up and drop off one group. Then they go back and do the same with another group. 

It’s been tough. But luckily, the schools have been really understanding. They know this is a nationwide problem, not just a problem for my company. 

The parents are the ones who don’t understand. The school contacts them, and we contact them to explain the situation. They’re like No, our kids need to be at school. We can’t afford for them to be late. And I don’t blame them because these parents don’t want their kids to miss breakfast. These are low-income families that rely on schools for meals. 

Are you contracted with Minneapolis public schools? What’s the ethnic makeup of the students you serve?  

No, these are charter schools in Minneapolis. The majority of them are Somalis. But some schools have multiethnic populations. They have Latinos, African Americans, Ethiopians, Oromo. 

What contributes to the driver shortages?

Right now, the transportation industry is really competitive. If someone wants to be a driver, they want to drive trucks and provide delivery services to companies like Amazon, Target, and Walmart, where they can make over $10,000 a month. 

There was this driver I tried to recruit. He told me: I’m making $11,000 a month driving for Amazon. I go to Chicago three, four times a week. That’s 40 hours a week. Why would I settle for less?

So these drivers are getting paid a lot more than what we can offer. 

How much do you pay drivers, if I may ask?

Their pay ranges from $23-$25 an hour. Some of the yellow bus drivers are making up to $25 an hour. Those with less experience earn $23 an hour. The ones driving minivans can make up to $15 an hour.

And what qualifications do bus drivers need to have?

You have to have a clear criminal record. You also need to have a good driving record. Beyond that, yellow bus drivers need to have a Commercial Driver’s License School Bus Endorsement.  

What are you doing to recruit and retain workers?

We’re doing multiple things to recruit and retain workers. First—and this isn’t just when we’re facing driver shortages—we’ve created an environment where employees have a voice, where they feel safe, and where they feel heard. 

Second, we provide free breakfast every morning. That includes things like bagels, muffins, coffee. We have a fancy cappuccino machine so people can make themselves cappuccino, hot chocolate, etc. 

Third, we’re offering each of our new hires a $1,000 bonus if they work with us for three months or longer. In addition, employees who refer drivers to us get $500 for each referral. 

Sometimes, people don’t believe me when I say these things. One driver once asked me: So you’re telling me, if I bring four drivers, I will get $2,000? I told him, yes, as long as they work for three months or longer. 

The next morning, he brought me two drivers.

I know school bus drivers don’t have the traditional 9-to-5 work schedule. All they have to do is drop off kids in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. That means they have a few gap hours in the middle of the day. I was wondering why folks would still seek out these jobs.  

Yes, school bus drivers have two shifts: the morning shift and the afternoon shift. In each shift, they work a total of about two and a half to three hours. So most of the drivers work five, six hours a day. 

What we have to do as a company is that we have to pay them for the two hours they do not work to make sure they’re getting eight hours a day. That’s the only way you could retain them, really. 

However, for some drivers, the idea of not working eight consecutive hours is appealing. The majority of the people who are interested in these jobs are Uber/Lyft drivers, retired people, individuals who aren’t able to work full-time for whatever reason. 

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...