Oil field jobs lure away school bus drivers
July 21, 2012 at 2:21 a.m.
Judy Graves stumbled upon a 37-year career simply because her husband said she wouldn't have the skills to drive a bus.
"I'm stubborn," Graves said, chuckling.
She proved him wrong, and decades later, Graves is one of the Victoria school district's veteran school bus drivers. But the job she's loved since she was 26 years old isn't attracting long-timers like her - especially in the Crossroads, where high-paying oil field jobs are luring away drivers.
A sign outside the Victoria school district administration building perpetually advertises the need for bus drivers. The district was short seven or eight drivers throughout last year.
Angie Sherman, director of transportation, said she needs to hire at least another 10 drivers for the next school year.
James Coburn, who handles transportation for the Cuero school district, said he's honest with those who sign up to drive school buses.
It's a part-time, split shift. You have to get a commercial driver's license. You have to pass a physical exam and random drug tests. You have to like kids.
Even Graves acknowledges the challenges.
"You can't make a living at bus driving," she said.
Cuero pays its entry-level drivers $10 an hour, while Victoria offers $10.31 an hour.
Compare that to companies in the oil field who are paying upwards of $20 an hour, and school districts just can't compete.
In Wichita Falls, a district close to Dallas and similar in size to Victoria, drivers start out at $9 an hour. But without as much competition from oil jobs, the district will actually begin the school year with extra bus drivers, said Brian Gibson, general manager with Durham School Services in Wichita Falls, a company that handles transportation logistics for schools.
Within the last couple of years, the demand for Victoria College's truck driving program has tripled, said Sherri Pall, director of Workforce and Continuing Education at the college.
Oil companies are calling at the start of classes, hoping to be the first to recruit new graduates.
"The majority of the students will have multiple job offers once the class begins," Pall said.
When adding bonuses, commission and overtime onto their hourly pay, some drivers in the oil field are starting out making $70,000 to $80,000 a year, Pall said.
At Victoria College, the commercial drivers license class takes six to 12 weeks and costs $3,750.
Last year, Victoria school district began offering paid training in an effort to attract applicants. In addition to the CDL, the district gives drivers training with student management, CPR, first aid, crisis prevention and any necessary training for special needs students.
Sherman said some of the drivers moved on to the oil field after the training.
"We do invest a lot of time and money into our drivers, especially because they're carrying what everybody refers to as precious cargo," she said. "It's a lot, and then for us to just turn around and lose them."
MAKING IT WORK
Last year was the first time Cuero school district began losing drivers to the oil field, Coburn said. This year, they'll need at least one driver more and two substitutes to fill their 19 routes.
Coburn said he's appealing to the school board to try to get pay raises for the bus drivers.
Victoria should have 56 drivers to cover routes and field trips. If the district continues to be short drivers, they'll just adapt like they have in the past, Sherman said.
Sometimes they doubled-up on routes, she said, and supervisors, a mechanic and even a bus washer had to fill in as drivers other days.
"We drove quite a bit last year, but that's part of our job," Sherman said. "Our whole thing is just to get the kids to and from school safely."
At least Graves isn't going anywhere soon. She's able to supplement the family's income with her husband's job, and for her, the split shift is ideal.
"I get to rest during the day or go shopping or do doctors appointments, where if you've got it straight through, it's kind of hard to work that stuff in," she said.
Graves said she's enjoyed watching students grow up on her route at William Wood Elementary School, and she's heard plenty of stories, wiped plenty of tears and laughed plenty of times with the kids.
"I'll probably be driving there until I'm dead. I love it," she said.