Tools for Addressing the School Bus Driver Shortage
Tyler Podcast Episode 46, Transcript
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Worker shortages have impacted many different industries including school transportation. In this episode entitled, Tools for Addressing the School Bus Driver Shortage, we speak with Alfred Karam. Alfred is the Director of Transportation for the Shenendehowa Central School district. He is an experienced, award-winning Director Of Transportation with a rich history in the transportation, trucking, and railroad industry. He is skilled in negotiation, operations management, freight, coaching, and government. His achievements include: New York Association for Pupil Transportation Art Shock Award winner - 2011 School Bus Fleet Magazine Administrator of the Year winner - 2013 National Association for Pupil Transportation Larson Quality Award winner – 2017 And served our country as a Marine for 25 years with Transportation and Logistics as his specialty. In this episode Kim Martin, one of Tyler Tech school transportation experts, speaks with Alfred to share how he has addressed driver shortages while maintaining the highest level of safety and service for all students at Shen.
Alfred Karam: They’re surprised how easy it is to drive a school bus. That's the message that we want to send out. Yes, this is a large vehicle, on average, 13 tons. But it's just as easy to drive as driving your own car.
Jeff Harrell: From Tyler Technologies, it's the Tyler Tech Podcast, where we talk about issues facing communities today and the people, places, and technology making a difference. I'm Jeff Harrell. I'm the Director of Content Marketing for Tyler. I'm so glad that you joined me. While you're likely aware of the worker shortage throughout many different industries, school transportation is no exception. Today's episode is entitled "Tools for Addressing the School Bus Driver Shortage" with Alfred Karam. Alfred Karam is the Director of Transportation at the Shenendehowa Central School District. He is an experienced award-winning Director of Transportation with a rich history in the transportation trucking and railroad industry. He's skilled in negotiation, in operations management, freight coaching, and government. He is a New York Association for Pupil Transportation Art Shock Award winner in 2011 and School Bus Fleet Management Administrator of the Year winner in 2013. He's also the National Association for Pupil Transportation Quality Award winner in 2017. As you will hear, he served our country as a Marine for 25 years with transportation and logistics as his specialty. Certainly the perfect person to have talk about this issue of school bus driver shortage. In this episode, Kim Martin, one of our Tyler Tech school transportation experts, speaks with Alfred to share how he has addressed driver shortages while maintaining the highest level of safety and service for all students at Shen. Here's Kim Martin and Alfred Karam.
Kim Martin: Thank you so much for being a guest with us today on our podcast. Really important stuff that we're talking about. To get us through what this is, we have the best of the best. Alfred Karam is with us, Director of Transportation at Shenendehowa, I know I've said that wrong, Central School District in New York. But I'm going to let him actually introduce his operation because it's very impressive. Hi, Al. Thanks for hanging out with me today.
Yes this is a large vehicle, on average 13 tons, but it's just as easy to drive as it is driving your own car
Director of Transportation for the Shenendehowa Central School district
Background on the Shenendehowa School District
Alfred Karam: Sure. Thank you for the invitation. Let me give you a quick background on Shenendehowa Central School District or Shen for short. Our district is comprised of about 88 square miles. We have about 10,100 students currently on our roles. Pre-pandemic, we were up to about 10,450 students. We transported about 62 different schools within the capital region. Those are private schools, parochial schools, and special education placements. We go twice a week as far as Rochester. We take one student out to Rochester, New York, which is about 230 miles from here, drop them off, then go back at the end of the week, and bring that student back. The staff pre-pandemic was around 300. Now we're around 273, 275 individuals, mainly drivers, bus attendants, mechanics, and office staff. Pre-pandemic, I probably had around 205, 208 drivers. Now I'm down to about 176 drivers. I have 10 open routes, or blocks I should say, AM/PM blocks that make the workday that we still have not been able to fill since the school started in September due to the severe driver shortage everyone's facing.
Kim Martin: Absolutely. There is a severe shortage right now. That's definitely why we wanted to have you here. You have quite the operation, as I've told our listeners and promised them that it is impressive. I was just thinking 62 schools, that's a lot to get to know all of those lineups in the afternoon. 88 square miles, I believe you said, that's when it takes you a half hour to come back to base, it sounds like. But it's really a great operation and a great area. You've been doing something for a little while. Recently we've gotten the chance to see it and highlight it. I just really want to help share that even more because I think it's amazing. I see that you have a program incentivizing people to consider driving a school bus. With the driver shortage that everybody is suffering, this is such good information. I was hoping that you could talk to us about that.
Alfred Karam: What we have been doing, actually, we started in 2017. We've ramped it up since then. One of the things that I've learned in this profession is a lot of people are scared of the school bus, the size of it. They're scared to get behind the wheel, they're hesitant. One of the things that we wanted to do, and I'm sure other people have done it, but we certainly have ramped it up, is conduct a test drive the bus event here on our Shen campus. We were doing it once, twice a year. Now we do it quarterly. We invite people to just come and give it a shot. Typically, we would have anywhere between 10 to about 25 people show up, which is great because you always get about half of those people... This is our experience, and it may be different somewhere else. At least half of those that come, they end up taking an application. Then half of those actually come back to us and do training with us. It's been very, very successful. As part of that process, we try to do a lot of public relations and partner with our local news agencies, news channels, if you will. Our public information officer notices. That attracts not only people's interests, but also politicians, especially now facing severe driver shortage. I can tell you at least the last three test drive the bus event, I've had three state senators show up and at least two assembly members from the state of New York. That's what we want because we can then take some time with them, explain the problems that we're having, and then ask them to go back, help us highlight this problem, and advocate for us. The program has been very successful in keeping our head above water by helping us get some foot traffic that really has dried up because of the pandemic, placing drivers, or add them to the staff.
Kim Martin: The visibility that it's bringing is amazing and helping our industry. Hopefully, you and I will keep in touch about that. But you went right to what I was thinking about asking you, where you advertise this, which you said, of course. I was wondering though, do a lot of people that come to test drive it, is it friends and family of your current drivers?
Alfred Karam: No, not necessarily. Here's how we advertise: When we pick the dates and put it on the calendar, the first thing I do is share the dates with our district public information person. I give her the dates when I want an email blast to go out. I usually do it about 10 days out. Then the second email goes out maybe four or five days before the event. They'll get hit with two email blasts. The other thing that we do for our Shen campus here, we have two main entrances. At each entrance, we have electronic signs. For about two weeks straight, we have the event posted on those electronic signs. Part of that, the public information person also sends out public information notices to the local news media. That gets to print, that gets on TV, free advertisement. When we interview people after we have these events, they fill out applications and they come in for interviews. We ask them, "How did you find out that we're looking for drivers?" The top answer is email. That is that email blast I talked about. The second piece is, "I have a family member who lives and has kids that go to Shen. He or she got this email and they shared it with me." Email and word of mouth at the same time, those are really the two top. Then the third one is the two electronic signs. Once in a while, we put out a green and white bus that we converted from a yellow school bus that we have large banner on that we take around and park around the school district in different places. They'll see that at times and say, "That's what prompted me to come and apply."
Kim Martin: It sounds like the email is successful. You're tracking how you're getting the applicants. Thank you for sharing that with us. I think it's important to highlight that free advertising, when you reach out to the media and say, "Here's what we're doing." I know the first question on my mind when I saw this, how did you sell this to the powers that be over there at Shen? How do you control any type of liability that could possibly happen? What does this look like when you put on the event?
Alfred Karam: Great question. I've actually gotten that question from colleagues from outside the state of New York who read the article that I wrote for School Bus Fleet Magazine, I believe back in 2017, 2018 timeframe. At any rate, the first thing I did was check with our insurance carrier, Utica National, explained to them what we're trying to do, and explain to them that we're going to be on campus. The campus is really private property. The road network, we have about a mile and a quarter of roadway, that's private. We have large parking lots. We told them we will not be going off campus when we have these people who don't have permits to be driving school buses, to get them behind the wheel. They assured us that we are covered under our general liability insurance, and it is not a problem so long as we do not go off campus and go on the public road network. We usually have four or five buses out there. Each bus has a school bus driver instructor. In some cases, they're dual certified as school bus driver instructor/DMV examiner. They themselves are school bus drivers, very experienced, who walk these potential applicants through the process, show them how to drive this bus, and get the jitters out of the way. You got to go through your insurance company. Some insurance company will tell you, "No, you can't." I've heard that in the state of New York, and I've heard it from colleagues outside the state. Others will tell you, "Yeah, absolutely." It really depends on your insurance company.
Kim Martin: Excellent. Thank you for sharing that. I think that's an important first step. We all have to look out for that, even though I think that this is a great idea. That's super important and a great way to go about it. Certainly, like you said, if you have a DMV examiner, third party tester, a lot of us in our staffs, of course, have those and trainers. It's really the same as when you get your permit and you start driving. There's always day one. I can only imagine that some of the expressions when people give it a try are probably really neat to see.
Alfred Karam: Yes it is. I won't mention the name, but we had a lawmaker. We tell him, "Look, the speed on the campus is 15." The lawmaker inadvertently was looking at the, had it at 15, 100 RPMs. The speed is above 20. We had to counsel him to slow down. You get a good laugh out of that. The person, they're surprised how easy it is to drive a school bus. That's the message that we want to send out. Yes, this is a large vehicle, on average 13 tons. But it's just as easy to drive as driving your own car.
About Alfred Karam
Kim Martin: It's so true. I know when I was in school, never did I think I would be a bus driver. It just didn't cross my mind. When I started driving, there's so many more mirrors. I'm like, "Man, I wish I had these on my car, most of these mirrors." You're absolutely right, I find it, and I think a lot of people do find it easier and love being high up. You can really see everything. There's a lot of advantages. How did you get into this industry?
Alfred Karam: I was in the military, in the Marine Corps for 25 years. Transportation and logistics was my occupational specialty. Although not commercial type, it was on a tactical type vehicles, but I knew transportation. I knew logistics. I knew moving passengers, how to coordinate, how to plan for small numbers, large numbers and, of course, leadership. I rose up in the ranks. Leadership was second nature to me. When I got out, I wanted a job. I wanted a profession where one, I can use my skills. Two, continue giving to my community just like I gave to my country for 25 years. It may sound corny, but that's what I was looking for. I happened to fall into school transportation not on purpose. I was in between jobs. Somebody gave me a notice for a position that opened up at Bethlehem Central, about 24 miles South of us here. I applied for it. I did not have a yellow license or license to drive yellow buses. I did have a class A though. I knew maintenance management. I managed maintenance shops while I was in the Marine Corps. I managed large fleets. In some units, there were upwards of about 1,000 pieces of equipment. That got me into the door. That's 22 years ago. Here we are.
Kim Martin: Al, first of all, thank you for your service.
Alfred Karam: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Kim Martin: They're so lucky to have you, and we're so lucky to have you in this industry with that kind of background. Really do appreciate your service for 25 years. It's amazing. You're only 32. That's crazy. That's an amazing background. Really, it is. I am so thankful to be able to say, "Thank you for bringing that to this industry," because for the safety of the children, there's so much experience that you have is just invaluable. Really neat just to know you. I love that you did this thing, thinking outside the box to recruit because we've all put the bus out there with the sign and the banner, definitely. But we want to do something a little bit different because that can look intimidating, to drive a large vehicle. But really working with students. We need professionals from every type of background. That's why it's so important that we all share our background. I go talk to high school students and let them know, "You may have never thought that there is a career in this field, but here's some things you could do." I think it's important for us to reach out and let people know that this might be a career path you'd consider, or it might help you along your career path. I know that I've seen people who have their own businesses online, especially since the pandemic. They like driving the bus because they can do that in between and still have the same days off as their school-aged children, lots of advantages there. Then they can still work on their other business or studying. I'm sure with so many employees, you have lots of different examples of why they would want to take that type of position and how it benefits them.
Alfred Karam: Absolutely. I can share one with you really quick. We had a young man who was finishing up his college. He was going after his teacher certification. We were blessed to have him for about three years with us. Then we lost him to the teaching profession once he graduated and got a job. I'd like to attract young people, keep them here, help groom them, and help grow them within the industry. You're absolutely right, there's a lot of different pathways starting out as a bus driver and then moving up into training, into management, leadership position, that sort of thing. As you know, in our profession, we attract lot of retirees. We have them from across the spectrum. I have retired state police, firemen, GE engineers, business people. I got a gentleman who had a PhD that came here, actually two of them. One unfortunately passed away. I have one who has a PhD still working for us. This is a story that I try to highlight whenever I have an opportunity at the Board of Education meetings when they give me an opportunity to speak because I want the people out there not to think of school transportation, school bus drivers as the Ralph Cramden type bus driver. But these are truly professionals with really unique backgrounds who are making a difference with children on our school buses.
Reacting to Shortages
Kim Martin: They absolutely are. They're making a difference in the [inaudible 00:18:59] classroom. That is so great to hear. I really appreciate that. One of the things that I was really looking forward to also talking with you about, Al, and getting your take on is with all of these shortages, I see that across the country, a lot of people are saying, "We need to cut routes or maybe encourage students to walk if they can or get a ride some other way." Really the cutting routes is the first one that, as a transportation director, I'm going, "It sounds like that person doesn't realize that if we could cut them down, we probably would." You can only be so efficient and then you can't be flexible to the students as well. But there are so many local things that we have to follow. It's not just as easy as, "We're going to cut this down," as people think. It just makes me sad to hear when it's being approached that way. But you did not approach it that way. At least it doesn't seem like it over in Shen. Let me know if that statement is correct. I want to hear how you guys approached it.
Alfred Karam: No, you're right on track. Our approach was different. We did not cut routes. We didn't ask kids to walk. We certainly are not putting out emails every day saying, "X number of buses will not be running for this school or that school due to driver shortage." We knew going into the school year that we were going to be short drivers. Why is that? For my operation on average, it's about 20 to 22 drivers exit out of the operation, either through normal attrition, retirement, or they're just getting up there in age, physically, they can't do this anymore, or they're having a family medical issues, or it's simply time for them to actually retire. When the foot traffic for replacements dried up, especially late 2020 and then 2021, we knew we were going to have problems. Last year, we were hitting about 30 drivers out. We usually average between eight to 12 drivers out long term sick. Again, if you look at the demographics of school bus drivers, at least for us here in some studies that they've done, it's around 55, 56. That's what it is for us. It's 56 point something. That demographics has a lot of medical issues, a lot of challenges, a lot of familial issues. When the foot traffic died, as we were planning for this school year, we came up. We developed a plan. What does it look like if we have 25 drivers out? What does it look like if we have 30, 35, 40, 45 and 50 drivers? I wanted a plan in place that we can go off of to see how we're going to operate before we hit the bell, tapped out, and said, "[Spanish 00:22:07]. We can't do it no more."
Alfred Karam: On top of that, knowing that we're going to be short drivers, I had my team here work together and come up with a plan within building the blocks. We use the software to build the roots. But when we build the blocks, we do that manually. What I'm talking about blocks is your AM block, let's say from 6:00 AM to 9:00 AM, we fill it with roots. That's your AM block. Usually you have about three roots in the AM, three routes in the PM. That's on average. Some are less, some are more. What I directed my staff to do is to actually inject some time above and beyond what these blocks would normally look like. If we normally build a three hour block pre-pandemic, I wanted it three and a half. I wanted that half hour. Is that money that is going to be at times not used in terms of actually having somebody work? Yeah.
Alfred Karam: I knew we were going to do that. But I wanted the flexibility, depending on how many drivers call out sick, to take their individual roots and be able to plug them into those existing staff into that time that we built in so we can continue running every day. Knock on wood, we have not up to this point, had to go to the superintendent and say, "I can't run 20 buses or 30 buses or 40 buses out of 214." We've been running everything. We've been picking up all the kids. It's a normal year, but it's very stressful because the work of divvying up and finding homes for these open routes because not every day the same people are out. It fluctuates. That's challenging. That is stressful and it's challenging. But we're able to still accomplish the mission that's given to us, which is transport our kids.
Kim Martin: For the operations out there who have had to cut funds and ask parents to bring their child to school, of course, when there's nothing else you can do, there's nothing else you can do. That is a reality for many. But if you can approach it in a different way, that's what we all want to do. We all want to offer the students a ride to school. That's what we're here for. That's really why I wanted you to share that. I think some of the important pieces I know that I picked up was really to typically in transportation, we do have a plan, but we may not take it as far as you did this year. If you had 50 drivers out, like you were saying, and plan A, B, C, D, E, F, G. That sounds like it was very helpful because it's that puzzle that falls apart, also unexpectedly. I think unless you work in transportation, you don't realize that. Why would you? It falls apart unexpectedly because of so many other factors. You have to put that puzzle back together. Really interesting. It sounds like definitely, like you said, you use software to help you with some of it, at least give you the information for your local talent there to put those blocks together. What other kind of technology has helped during this? Of course, I'm wondering if our very own Tyler drive has helped with some of the new drivers. If you could talk about technology that I know I wish was around when I was a driver and how that's worked for everybody there at Shen.
Alfred Karam: Absolutely. The tablets, they're absolutely wonderful. Again, that's a question that comes up almost in every interview. People will say, "How do I know where to go? How do I know which streets to take, where to stop, who to pick up or to drop off?" In the interview in my office, when we're holding interviews, I have two things set to the side. One is the printed outline so they can see what that looks like. The other one is the Tyler tablet, the Tyler drive. I talk about both of them. Just like test driving a bus, that takes all the stress away knowing that we have this kind of system that these potential applicants will be able to use. Once they get their feet wet and they learn the district, they don't need that no more. But it's a great tool to have to take that fear away, not necessarily take the fear away all the way, but at least subside it, put it off to the side, and get them comfortable in being school bus drivers.
Kim Martin: Thank you for sharing that. Technology is out there like this finally for our industry. I know that I am just so proud of the Tyler drive. I'm glad to have your input. A professional like yourself, the whole team here is, so thank you. I've got one last question for you, Al. This is a doozy, but I ask all of my guests this. I have to ask you too. What was your favorite lunch when you were in school?
Alfred Karam: My favorite lunch while I was in school was pizza.
Kim Martin: Pizza's a popular choice, by the way. It's a really popular choice. I was thinking something else too. With this driver shortage, we all want to share ideas, so we've all been talking a lot about it. Anytime you ask a driver why they might have retired or moved onto a different industry, the answer is never the kids. I've never heard anybody say that. If you're thinking about joining this industry, just know that the kids are some of the most amazing parts, the most rewarding to work with them. I truly have never heard anyone say it's because of the kids that they were leaving, only that's why they do it. It's an amazing family atmosphere. We're going to keep spreading the word, you and I.
Alfred Karam: Sounds great, Kim. I appreciate it. Thank you so much. My assistant director has a saying to potential applicants, she'll say, "Being a school bus driver, you never know, you could be transporting the next president of the United States or the doctor that may save your life 15 years down the road, 20 years down the road," whatever the case might be.
Kim Martin: Or even the student that might save your life and others just while you know them. Some amazing stuff out there for people to Google instead of anything that they're thinking might feel intimidating. But we want to keep encouraging people. We can get the students to school. Thank you for everything that you do, Al, not only your service to this country, but the service to Shen. The K-12 transportation industry really appreciates you sharing this information. I hope you'll come back and talk to us.
Alfred Karam: Thank you so much for the invite, enjoyed it, and looking forward hopefully for a future invite. Take care, Kim.
Jeff Harrell: Thank you, Kim and Alfred Karam, for that awesome conversation. I just love examples of leveraging technology to solve problems without sacrificing quality or service. Really enjoyed that conversation. Thanks again for joining us. We drop a new episode every other Monday. We have lots of great episodes planned for 2022. Hope that you'll continue to join us. Until next time, this is Jeff Harrell, Director of Content Marketing for Tyler Technologies. Thanks so much for joining me. We'll talk to you soon.