Bus driver shortages loom as students head back to school

Current drivers encourage others to get behind the wheel

Local bus companies are making backup plans, in case they don't have enough drivers for the first day of school. Bus driver shortages are putting a strain on school districts across the state and the country.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Local bus companies are making backup plans in case they don’t have enough drivers for the first day of school.

As of last week, Duval County Public Schools said it needed as many as 50 new bus drivers.

One of its contractors, Student Transportation of America, said it is still looking to hire around 100.

In light of the looming shortages, local bus driver Ambrenique Watkins shared her personal reason for choosing the job.

Before taking News4JAX for a ride-along on her route, Watkins made sure her bus was in check.

The single mother of three recently relocated to Jacksonville from Houston and took the job with Student Transportation of America in April.

Watkins said she appreciates the vital role she plays in helping students get to school.

“I just enjoy the atmosphere. I love kids. I’m very passionate about mentoring,” she said.

She also said the flexible work schedule allows her to spend precious time with her own children. Time she cannot get back.

“It just gives me the opportunity to have a life. I’ve had jobs where I was working 12, 14, 16 hours, and I barely saw my kids,” Watkins said. “It gives me the opportunity to put them in sports and do things I wish I could have done a long time ago.”

Drivers also said that one of the benefits of the job is that their children can ride along with them.

Despite that, the shortage of drivers is something Rebecca Cardona with Teamsters Local 512 hasn’t seen in her 30 years of working in the industry.

“I believe it’s mainly because the largest part of the workforce pre-COVID were older folks as well as retirees,” Cardona said. “Due to health reasons or other reasons for that matter, they’ve decided to hang up their keys.”

Cardona also said the pandemic makes the shortage more severe, but that Teamsters is working with bus companies to raise pay and give better benefits.

“They’re actually the first face that children see on a day-to-day basis and the last face that they see. They are just as important as all other members of the education system,” she said.

If companies can’t fill these open positions by the start of the school year, she said routes will have to be merged, which could lead to longer rides for students.

“I always say, ‘Be a part of the solution,’ and that’s what we’re hoping to target,” Cardona said.

Drivers currently on the road like Watkins hope others see the difference they make every day and become drivers too.

“This is more than just driving a bus for me. It’s getting to know my students every day, making that impact, even if it’s just for a split second,” Watkins said.

STA is also offering sign-on bonuses for new employees as well as bonuses and work incentives for current employees.

About the Author:

Amanda DeVoe joined the News4JAX team in March 2022 as a morning news and traffic anchor