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Wanted: Drivers for yellow buses

November 29, 2021 | read time icon 5 min

by Nela Richardson, Ph.D.
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Over the last six months, labor shortages have been a hot topic for big and small employers alike. But there’s one job where shortages have been particularly challenging for Main Street families – school bus drivers.

A lack of drivers has forced some school districts to cut routes, leaving parents to scramble to get their kids to school. And three months into the school year, the bus driver shortage hasn’t let up.

We analyzed anonymized ADP data on bus drivers to find out what was going on before the pandemic and what’s happened since. Here’s what our research found. 

School bus drivers are older and paid less

Demographics have had a big impact on the job recovery nationally, so that’s where we started.

First, some background on recent demographic trends. Pre-pandemic, millennials were the largest generation in the workforce. Workers at the other end of the age spectrum, those 65 and older, were delaying retirement and staying in the workforce longer than previous generations.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on these two groups. ADP research has shown that workers aged 21 to 30, and those older than 60, had the highest rate of job loss. Employment for both groups is down 22% from pre-pandemic levels.

This trend is of particular interest to schools.

More than half of school bus drivers 55 and over. The average age is 54, or 12 years older than the average U.S. worker, who is 42. One in five bus drivers is 65 or older.

(Bus drivers also tend to be men, comprising 62% of the field.)

School bus drivers also are paid less than the national workforce average. The average hourly wage for drivers is $23, roughly 70% of the average of $31 for all U.S. workers.

Headcount has plummeted

As classrooms shuttered across the country in 2020, the number of school bus drivers plummeted by a staggering 77%, according to the ADP data. Thankfully, many of these workers came back, but their numbers have been reduced.

When schools reopened this fall, they had to make do with fewer bus drivers. The number of bus drivers employed by schools is down 13% compared to 2019.

Age matters, but not in the way you think

Employment dropped the most for drivers between the ages of 25 and 34. This school bus cohort has shrunk by about 30% this year from its 2019 level. 

Drivers 55 and older experienced a relatively minor drop in employment by comparison, less than 5% this year compared to 2019. In fact, drivers in this age range had modest increases going into the start of the 2021 school year compared to the same time two years ago.

My Take

One popular explanation for worker shortages is that people are retiring early. School bus drivers defy this explanation.

Young workers, who made up a small share of bus drivers to begin with, haven’t returned in the same way their older counterparts have. These drivers could be switching jobs to pursue more rewarding opportunities, given the relatively low pay of school bus drivers when compared to national averages. In a world where more people are ordering online, workers with a commercial driver’s license have more options than they did before the pandemic.

For schools, the problem goes beyond bus drivers. Students who have returned to brick-and-mortar classrooms are being greeted with fewer teachers and staff — and more uncertainty.

For Main Street parents, that uncertainty — and the shortage of school bus drivers — might mean delaying their own return to the workforce.

For a deeper analysis on bus drivers before and after the onset of the pandemic, review our Research Note.