While other school districts in B.C. and beyond cope with bus driver shortages, Chilliwack is staying ahead of the problem. Allan Van Tassel, director of facilities and transportation for School District 33, says there have only been a couple hiccups this year.
“It’s a good news story for Chilliwack and it’s really about the hard work of the transportation team,” Van Tassel said. “We haven’t had to cancel runs. Worst-case scenario, we’ve had to duplicate routes a couple mornings and had students arrive late, but we were able to get them there for the day.”
Duplicating routes means doing the same route twice with one bus because you don’t have a second bus available.
A few minutes up the freeway in Abbotsford, that school district is facing a bus driver crisis that has caused students to be left without buses altogether. The problem is blamed on a lack of drivers and “significant sick leaves,” according to an Abbotsford school district staff report.
Van Tassel said Chilliwack protects itself from sick days by making sure everyone on the transportation team can drive.
“All of our mechanics, our dispatchers and even our manager have their qualifications for driving,” he said. “If we can’t fill our positions with drivers, then we rely on our mechanics and other team members to drive and we back-fill their positions from facilities. So even myself, I might be in there helping with dispatch and other things when our normal dispatchers are out there driving buses.”
Hiring and retaining bus drivers is an issue. Van Tassel said it was exacerbated during the COVID pandemic when drivers who were nearing retirement decided to call it a career, and he said there’s no wave of people banging the door down to take the jobs.
“It’s always been a challenging area,” he said. “Generally a bus driver is four hours a day, so you’re looking for a group of people who only want to work four hours a day. There are opportunities to work longer with school bus trips and get closer to full time, but we can only promise four hours a day for 10 months out of the year.
“That’s not a real attractive position for most people, and the last two or three years it’s become an even greater challenge.”
He said it’s not just bus drivers that have become a problem to hire. SD33 is also struggling to find custodial staff and trades people.
“All of those positions seem more difficult to fill with less work force available,” he observed. “As I drive around Chilliwack I see a lot of help wanted signs out and hear the struggles of contractors who are also looking for trades staff.”
Van Tassel said SD33 has done a lot of advertising to attract drivers. All new drivers have to get their class two license and take a three-week training program.
“Previously that was done on their own time, but to make it a little more attractive we now pay them to do the training program,” Van Tassel noted. “That makes it a lot more attractive for new hires. For us it was a change this year that made a lot of sense.”
Van Tassel is optimistic that SD33 will continue staying ahead of the problem. The district secured nine new drivers a month ago who have gone through the training program, and six more are currently going through training.
“So we are seeing an improvement in availability,” he said.
Anyone who is interested in driving a SD33 bus is invited to apply in person by bringing a resume to the Transportation Department at 44877 Yale Road. See sd33.bc.ca/announcement/were-hiring for more info.
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