Chris Staron started work at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5. He’s a bus driver, and it was the first day of school.
In his 10 years of working for the Teton County School District, he said it was the smoothest first day he’d seen.
“Seems like the kids are prepared, the teachers are at their post and the system is working as it’s supposed to,” said Staron, who drove kids to Jackson Elementary School.
But the school year kickoff didn’t come without its issues: the district is seeing the worst bus driver shortage it’s seen in years.
The district is usually short one or two drivers. Right now, it’s down four — more than 10% of the force.
“It’s always been difficult to find and keep bus drivers long-term,” said Colby Stevens, the district’s director of transportation. “[But] I think especially since Covid, it got even more difficult.”
A nationwide shortage
Schools around the country are scrambling to fill driver positions, because of what some see as inconvenient hours and the ongoing effects of the pandemic, among other issues. But in Teton County, Stevens said the problem is compounded by the “astronomical” cost of living, which skyrocketed in recent years.
While he works to hire drivers, Stevens and other office workers may have to fill in behind the wheel. He’s already told principals they may have to cut down on field trips. Travel for sports could be on the chopping block next.
“You get more and more to the point where you’re like, ‘Okay, if we lose one more, are we going to have to say no to, say, a sports team that needs to travel on a day where there’s six teams going six places?’” – Colby Stevens, Teton County Director of Transportation
With the school year underway, Stevens said the district is more aggressively looking for drivers willing to work part-time and get full benefits for themselves and their families. Job ads show that pay starts at $23.70 an hour for a 175-day contract, and no driving experience is necessary.
In looking for workers, Stevens also emphasizes that bus drivers get to have a unique relationship with kids and their families.
“You know, you’re the first person often the kids see in the morning and the last person they see in the afternoon,” Stevens said.
‘A supportive work environment’
Waiting for the elementary schoolers to load onto the bus to go home that first day, Staron raved about the job.
He also does improv and hosts a podcast, but working as a driver allows him to have health insurance and extra money.
“It’s a really good place especially for people who are looking to retire but maybe not quite in that age where they can get on Medicare,” he added.
Staron said his favorite part of the job are his coworkers. Many are community members who had kids go through the school district and want to give back. Others are entrepreneurs, Staron said.
“You have to run the whole bus by yourself, but then we also have to work together,” he said.
Just before the kids started filling his bus, Staron added that the drivers are a competent group of people who care a lot about what they do.
“I also get the sense that if I was ever in trouble in my personal life, these people would go out of their way to help me,” Staron said. “So, it’s a very supportive work environment.”