Larger school districts are still searching for bus drivers, while smaller districts are leaning on community to fill holes

Sept. 26, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

Bus in Parade
Omaha Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in Nebraska, has struggled to have a full staff of bus drivers. The district utilizes several recruitment efforts, including walking in parades at events like Dundee Day on Aug. 19 in Omaha. (Photo by Jolie Peal, Nebraska Public Media News)

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When a few board members showed up at Wendell Toben’s home to ask him to become a school bus driver, it was an easy yes for Toben.

After 51 years on the job, Toben remembered the reason he stayed so long.

“Just, the love of being around kids, watching them grow,” he said.

Toben made the tough decision to retire in May from Doniphan-Trumbull Public Schools.

“I’d probably still be driving if it wasn't for my wife,” Toben said with tears in his eyes. “She’s had real serious back problems. She can't be alone for very long.”

Wendy Toben with Transportation Staff
Wendell Toben, who worked as a bus driver for 51 years, stands in the center of the transportation staff at Doniphan-Trumbull Public Schools after being honored for his dedication to the job. He retired in May. (Photo courtesy of Doniphan-Trumbull Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Braden)

Bus drivers like Toben are getting harder to find with a national bus driver shortage, and Nebraska is no exception. Monique Nelson, Doniphan-Trumbull’s bus coordinator and a driver herself, says their small community has been lucky, having not seen the shortage because of community members willing to step up.

“That’s what I really strive for, is to have people in the community that know the community,” Nelson said.

When Toben retired, another bus driver came out of retirement to help out. Doniphan-Trumbull was able to continue their five routes this school year.

However, other districts in the state are struggling.

Lincoln Public Schools transports around 3,200 students.

They have about 130 drivers. Ideally, the district wants around 150 drivers, which would put them back where they were before the shortage.

Omaha Public Schools needs to transport around 18,000 students.

Last year, Omaha Public Schools had over 400 bus routes. They eliminated 60 at the start of this year as a result of new transportation requirements that extended both the school-to-home and bus stop-to-home distance for students.

OPS currently has about 150 bus drivers to help cover the routes.

Trevis Sallis, OPS transportation director, said at a back to school press conference that the district is recruiting at full force.

“We're not at 100 percent, but that's our goal,” Sallis said. “We'll keep working at it. We'll keep hiring, we'll keep putting billboards out. We'll keep having job fairs to make sure that we get to that goal at some point.”

Omaha Public Schools is looking for more than bus drivers. They need paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, even nurses. Except schools aren’t the only ones having a hard time filling positions.

Nate Kauffman, a branch executive for the Omaha office of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said shortages are hitting several industries, including healthcare, hospitality and transportation.

Kauffman said the low unemployment rate paired with a smaller labor force are a cause of the shortages.

“As the baby boomer generation has been nearing retirement or in retirement, it's just meant that we have generally a smaller labor force available than what we would have had in some previous years,” Kauffman said.

For every one unemployed person in the state, there are three jobs available, according to Kauffman.

So where the employers are having a challenge with filling positions, potential employee’s have options. For bus drivers, they can take their Class B commercial driver’s license and use it to get other jobs.

Jamie Stoll with Bus
Jamie Stoll, a bus driver and trainer for First Student pictured here, has not seen the impact of the shortage in Gering or Scottsbluff. (Photo by Jolie Peal, Nebraska Public Media News)

Bryan Flansburg is a senior location manager for Nebraska at First Student, a school transportation company. He said bus drivers can get more endorsements for their CDL to drive other vehicles like trash trucks or cement mixers — and there are more of those jobs in big cities.

“Most of our other locations have a major metropolitan location or city that is close by them, that people can, once they get their CDLs, they can go elsewhere and work,” Flansburg said.

In a city like Omaha where the population is over 487,000, it is a job seekers market. In cities like Gering and Scottsbluff — which have a combined population of around 22,000 — they’re not seeing the same thing.

The bus driver shortage is nearly nonexistent in Scottsbluff and Gering where Jamie Stoll has been a bus driver and trainer at First Student for 11 years.

“We have a lot of good retention here,” Stoll said. “We've got people that stick around, we're a close knit location here. So I think that and the fact that we're a good paying job for the valley, people are attracted to that.”

The pay starts at $18.75 per hour, according to Stoll. They have a full staff of about 40 drivers.

In Omaha, the pay starts at a little over $21 an hour. LPS bus drivers start at just below $24 an hour.

OPS has about 150 drivers, and LPS has over 120. Both are still searching for more.

The job is more than the pay, though. Stoll said part of the reason she’s stayed for over a decade is because of the kids.

“Have a bad day and a little kid comes up and hands you a card that they made that says ‘Have a good day,’” Stoll said. “It completely changes your perspective on how they are.”

For the students, bus drivers are the first and last people they see from the districts on a school day. For the bus drivers, the students are the reason for the job.

Toben, the 51-year bus driver in Doniphan, knew that better than anyone. The school honored him last year for his love and service as a bus driver.

Monique Nelson in Bus
Monique Nelson has been a bus driver at Doniphan-Trumbull Schools for 24 years, and she is also now the bus coordinator. Nelson took over Wendell Toben’s route after he retired. (Photo by Jolie Peal, Nebraska Public Media News)

Nelson saw Toben’s love for the job when she was a student on the way to a basketball game.

“It was mainly girls on that bus,” Nelson said. “They were the loudest and sang for the whole hour and 35 minutes down to Deshler the whole time. Talk about patience of a saint, that man has it.”

Now, Nelson takes the route Toben used to drive. She even picks up some of the activity routes like he would.

She still has about 25 years to catch up to Toben’s 51-year-record, though.