PORTLAND — School districts across Maine are experiencing an acute shortage of bus drivers.
So the Department of Education and Department of Labor are joining forces on a new program designed to encourage military veterans to fill the gap.
Through the Labor Department’s Hire-A-Vet campaign, bus driver training will be offered free to interested veterans. In addition to drivers, school districts also need bus mechanics and diesel engine specialists.
While the initiative is specifically geared toward veterans, the education departments said the free training is available to anyone who wants to work as a school bus driver.
The pay range in Maine depends on the school district, but generally, drivers can earn $11-$25 per hour. Some positions will also include a hiring bonus or being compensated while in training.
The qualities of a good school bus driver include people skills, the ability to remain calm under pressure, and a commitment to student safety, according to Pat Hinckley, the transportation and facilities administrator at the Education Department.
Hinckley said it makes sense to reach out to veterans to fill the open bus driver jobs because they often have “diverse backgrounds that include transportation, security, safety, mechanics, heavy equipment, teamwork (and) attention to detail.”
“Veterans are (also) mission centric,” he said. “School transportation offers an opportunity for veterans to transition from serving their country to serving their community. (Driving a school bus) is all about protect and serve.”
Already, Hinckley said, about 20 percent of school transportation staff in Maine are veterans.
Most school districts are offering school bus training this summer, and throughout the school year, he said. The basic requirements include being at least 21, holding a clean driver’s license for at least a year and passing a specialized medical examination.
School districts will also conduct a criminal background check and all applicants have to pass drug and alcohol testing, Hinckley said.
To earn a commercial driver’s license there is a written test and a driving test, where applicants must demonstrate the ability to safely operate a school bus, as well as conduct pre-trip and post-trip inspections.
While the main duty of a school bus driver is to safely operate the vehicle, Hinckley said drivers must also conduct emergency evacuation drills, be aware of local, state and federal rules and regulations, keep accurate records, and be dependable.
Julie Rabinowitz, the director of policy, operations and communication at the Department of Labor, said staff at the state’s various CareerCenters are specially trained to serve veterans looking for work.
“We do a lot of work with the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, as well as the many different veterans organizations to connect with veterans, their families and also the families of active duty-service members,” Rabinowitz said. “Through this outreach we can help connect veterans with jobs like this, where there is a statewide need.”
This year’s Hire-A-Vet campaign officially kicks off on Labor Day, according to Rabinowitz.
The idea is to help “employers learn about the value veterans can bring to their workforce.” Overall, she said, the Labor Department would like to place at least 100 veterans with 100 different employers within 100 days.
School bus drivers are in short supply, so Maine’s labor and education departments are teaming up to recruit military veterans to fill the jobs.