Navigating the Bus Driver Shortage

row of tourist buses with people in background

School buses, transit buses and charter buses operate in different spaces and, until 2020, didn’t have much in common aside from their involvement in the operation of large vehicles. The lack of business around the world that began almost three years ago resulted in less of a need for bus drivers across all bus sectors.

Now at the tail end of 2022, the demand is back; but the drivers, not so much.

Armir Harris, CEO of CharterUP, an Atlanta-based charter bus booking platform, says the problem of less drivers was more acute last year, when there was 25-30% dislocation, which indicates how often there wasn’t a driver to fulfill the job. But this year, Harris says, the company has seen that operators are beginning to increase the number of drivers and that dislocation percentage is now in the low teens.

“We have certainly experienced and seen where the demand was not able to be fulfilled by suppliers due to a shortage of drivers,” he says. Being on the technology front, Harris’ CharterUP provides its customers with real-time availability of buses via its app. However, Harris says it’s not just about providing real-time availability of buses, there has to be a driver behind the wheel.

Trouble getting drivers behind the wheel is something Alan Waxfield, owner of Las Vegas-based limo coach provider AWG Ambassador, is also experiencing on the ground. “People make appointments, they [say they] want the job and they don’t show up,” he says. “We’ve had quite a challenge with it.”

Meeting Demand with Supply

CharterUP serves as a marketplace for the supply and demand sides of the industry and provides data to their operators on pricing, predictability and revenue. The more impactful, and thus helpful, data set is the app’s ability to forecast and predict traffic, so operators can appropriately adjust their supply to meet the demand at any given hour. CharterUP also provides real-time tracking on all trips.

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“One of biggest problems for bus companies to scale their business is the variability in demand,” Harris says. “We help operators stabilize and forecast their demand much better and that requires driver retention and talent acquisition.”

CharterUP began in 2018, so even before the bus driver shortage, Harris had been looking for ways to make the process of procuring buses less stressful. “Even after you book a bus, you aren’t certain if the bus is going to show up on the day of the trip,” he says, “and good luck trying to call a bus company after 5 p.m. or on the weekends when most trips happen. Most of the time you’re lucky if you get someone to answer the phone.”

Where Harris is aiming to solve the problem of demand variability and bus booking, Waxfield is creating a one-stop shop for the employees of his company.

As a result of the bus driver shortage—which is being felt in trucking, as well—Waxfield says there’s a premium on drivers who have a Class B commercial driver’s license (CDL), a class of drivers who operate large single vehicles designed to transport 24 or more passengers, including themselves, or vehicles that weigh more than 26,000 pounds, like school buses, transit buses and dump trucks.

Waxfield started a CDL school for A- and B-class certification, creating a system where AWG trains its own employees and incentivize drivers who typically drive sedans and vehicles that don’t require a CDL.

“As everyone else has had to do, all the [booking] rates have gone up because there’s a bit of a challenge in getting people to come to work,” he adds. Waxfield says AWG is one of the few companies in Vegas that quotes its rates with a gratuity, resulting in his employees making “pretty good money” that is “easy to see.”

The Why of the Problem

When Waxfield was asked his thoughts about why, despite, by his own account, being one of the better companies in the region with greater benefits and better pay, AWG wasn’t able to retain employees, he said he didn’t have an answer.

“Everybody has their reasons for wanting to work and not work,” he says. “I think part and parcel of why people don’t want to work is the help they were getting from the government and saying ‘Well, here’s what I’m getting and here’s what I would get if I [stay home], so I’m better off staying home.’” But this isn’t Waxfield negatively critiquing the U.S. government’s response to the slowing down of business in the country, as he also received government aid for AWG and says his company probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that.

But although there continues to be a lack of employees, Waxfield says he thinks things are beginning to trend more toward normality. And with the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held Jan. 5-8, 2023, in Las Vegas, of which his company is a beneficiary due to the increase in visitors, he says it’ll be a strong start to the new year.

For meeting professionals operating in the landscape of scarce drivers, Waxfield believes if you want a satisfactory experience look for a reputed company with a good history. “Motorcoaches are expensive,” he says, “when you look at the cost and upkeep of something like that then you have to know that that company is working hard to make sure they have the right people behind the wheel.” There’s no secret sauce, he says.

“You can’t typically rely to online [reviews],” he says. “With the new way people have to ‘get back,’ so to speak, at somebody they think didn’t give them the right ride, they can really kick you to the curb…When I was younger, the only way to get the message out that someone wasn’t a good quality provider was to take an ad out in a newspaper or magazine; now, you go on social media, you go on Yelp, and you [give a rating] and people look at that.”

In Waxfield’s case, AWG has been in Las Vegas for more than 40 years and he says he has employees who have worked with him for more than 20 years. “When you have that, I think that speaks volumes to people wanting to work hard for you because you’ve done right by them.”

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