Already stretched thin before the word "pandemic" was ever part of their vocabulary, bus companies are finding it's even harder in 2021 to add qualified school bus drivers to their rosters.

"During a typical summer we train 10 to 15 drivers. This year I think I had five," said Katie Brunt, a manager with GST Transport.

According to the Southampton-based transportation company, many drivers, particularly older ones, have called it quits during the COVID-19 crisis. Brunt fears how many more drivers she could lose over the upcoming academic year, as other companies attempt to poach workers from their competition.

A shortage of drivers is nothing new for the industry, Brunt noted. For years, it's been becoming increasingly difficult to hire adequate candidates — mainly due to a more rigorous licensing and approval process.

Whether you want to haul machinery across the country on a tractor-trailer, or transport a bus of kids to and from school, you need to prove the same general knowledge in order to obtain a commercial driver license.

"Some of the testing has become pretty stringent," said Evie Wills, administrator of the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association. "The driver has to have some mechanical know-how."

But, Wills said, the association does not expect nor want school bus drivers attempting to repair their buses on the side of the road. Folks in the industry, Wills noted, are interested in creating a commercial driver license that's for school bus drivers only.

"It's not a job that you can just walk in to and start tomorrow," said Barbara Sargeant, president of School Transportation Supervisors of New Jersey.

Sargeant's district, Central Regional, had 11 substitute drivers ready to go at one point. Now that number is down to two.

"Anyone who's interested, just get in touch with the school district or get in touch with the contractor," Sargeant said.

At the height of the pandemic, groups noted, getting the proper testing and documentation to become a school bus driver was extremely difficult due to delays and closures on the state level.

In an emailed comment to New Jersey 101.5, the Motor Vehicle Commission said it's taken measures to make the CDL process quicker than it was prior to the pandemic. For example, MVC offers bulk testing for commercial driving schools and school districts, providing expedited scheduling when the district or driving school identifies an applicant for testing.

"There are no NJMVC delays with issuing CDLs in New Jersey," MVC spokesman William Connolly said. "Throughout the pandemic, the NJMVC has prioritized the issuance of Commercial Learner Permits, CDLs, and CDL renewals, to ensure that the truckers and bus drivers that are so crucial to our economy and society can get – and stay – on the road."

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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