Several central Ohio school districts have a message to send: bus drivers wanted.

As part of the plea, some districts are offering incentives such as paid training and sign-on bonuses to recruit drivers.

The Reynoldsburg City School District was forced to cancel school one day last year because it didn't have enough drivers to cover routes, and Westerville City School District officials said the district has come close to the same predicament.

Megan Geroux, coordinator of marketing and communications for the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said many school districts across the country are experiencing a bus-driver shortage.

According to a 2017 survey by the nonprofit organization, the shortage is attributed to benefits, rate of pay, need for obtaining a commercial driver's license and hours available to work.

The NAPT, headquartered in Albany, New York, is dedicated to helping its members engage in and influence policy-making to enhance operational safety and administrative efficiency.

"Many districts are getting creative in their recruitment and retention efforts to encourage people to become school bus drivers," Geroux said. "These incentives vary across the country."

Westerville incentives

Westerville's school board earlier this year approved a pilot incentive program in an attempt to recruit and hire drivers.

Westerville Transportation Department assistant manager Jan Horn said implementation of the program just started.

"Our goal is to hire 15 new drivers before next school year," she said.

Horn said the district recently had 16 drivers who were off work, with only 11 substitute drivers available.

She said the district handled the situation by splitting routes and having drivers complete one route, then double back to drive an extra route.

She said the district has 120 drivers, including substitutes, to cover 99 routes.

"Five routes are currently open (that) we're looking to fill with permanent drivers," Horn said.

Greg Viebranz, Westerville's executive director of communication and technology, said Westerville could experience the same situation as Reynoldsburg on any given day.

"We've had days where routes are covered by members of our transportation administrative team who hold their CDL," he said.

"Now, with this incentive pilot program in place, we're going to begin some aggressive outreach in an attempt to recruit and hire drivers and substitute drivers. If we can get 15 to 20 more drivers, that would be ideal."

Randy Snyder, another assistant manager with Westerville transportation, said the district is working on the incentive program to recruit and train high-quality bus drivers.

"Recently we approved a hiring incentive program that has both referral bonuses for our current employees and current drivers, as well as for those individuals (who) we are recruiting to drive for Westerville," he said. "Some of our best recruiters in the industry have always been and continue to be our own bus drivers."

With a roughly 20 percent driver shortage in the industry across the country, Snyder said, Westerville is getting aggressive in its recruiting.

Westerville's incentive program includes paying fees for new drivers including background checks, written tests, a physical and drug screenings.

Paid training also is being offered as well as sign-on and referral bonuses.

Scott Dorne, Westerville executive director of facilities and operations, said the district has a high-quality team that works collaboratively.

He said the district surveyed other districts to see what they were doing to attract drivers before devising its pilot program.

Horn said starting pay is $18 per hour for beginning drivers.

Gahanna's campaign

Jason Kee, transportation supervisor for the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools, said the district continues to deal with a bus-driver shortage like many districts in the area.

Gahanna-Jefferson has 56 routes and 61 drivers on the road. Three of the drivers are part time and three are covering for long-term absences, according to Kee.

"This time of year is even more challenging to attract drivers, since it could be late spring before the candidates are through the hiring and training process," he said. "New hires would then only drive for a month or so before summer vacation and then be off for three months."

Kee said Gahanna always is actively seeking new hires for the transportation department.

"This past school year, we ran a few powerful media campaigns to grab the attention of potential drivers," he said. "We have a large banner that we attach to a school bus, advertising openings and our competitive wage."

The district also has hosted "bus-driver job fairs" in the Lincoln High School parking lot.

"Our school bus with the banner attracts people to stop by, ask questions and perhaps fill out a job application," Kee said.

The banner advertises that training is provided and the pay rate is $18 an hour.

"When the weather warms up, we plan to host another hiring event, train the drivers over the summer months and have them bus-ready when school starts in August," Kee said.

Gahanna offers a few incentives to attract new drivers, including training and reimbursing the new hires for their CDL Class B license.

"We also permit the new drivers to work as a bus aide while going through the training process, and offer a recruitment bonus once their CDL license has been obtained," Kee said. "Being part of the transportation team while working on their license is a huge help to new drivers while they learn the ropes from our experienced staff."

Reynoldsburg job fair

Valerie Wunder, communications director for Reynoldsburg City Schools, said incentives and awards are something the district is looking at for the future.

Reynoldsburg closed school Nov. 5, 2018, because 14 of 52 bus drivers were unable to come to work for legitimate reasons, she said.

"Our bus routes are run on a tiered basis," Wunder said. "This means that a single driver could have as many as four total routes each day. For the sake of student safety, we did not want to have our students standing at bus stops for more than an hour without being able to communicate any updates to their parents."

She said Reynoldsburg is looking at incentives and hopes a job fair will attract more drivers.

Reynoldsburg's transportation department will host a job fair from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 26 at 7932 E. Main St. for anyone interested in becoming a bus driver.

The district is hiring full-time and substitute drivers with a starting pay of $17.50 per hour.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla