After at least two years, Anglophone School District West is still struggling to deal with a shortage of bus drivers.
On an average day, 35 to 40 out of its 254 bus drivers are unable to come to work, said Daniel Wishart, the district's manager of transportation.
A "wide variety of reasons" are behind the absences, said Wishart, from common colds to medical procedures and bereavement leaves.
The district calls in spare drivers and gets available drivers to cover multiple runs, but there's still a shortage of four to eight drivers every day, he said, mainly in the Fredericton and Oromocto areas. This means runs have to be cancelled.
"You never know when you get up in the morning how your children are going to get to school," said Karen Green, a retired bus driver who drove two generations of students to and from school in the Plaster Rock area.
"How can these families ever depend on school buses?"
"It must be frustrating for them."
Green doesn't understand why more people don't want to be bus drivers.
"For the most part, I enjoyed my years as a school bus driver," she said.
"I wish I could go down there and help them out."
A few factors have contributed to the shortage, said Wishart, including a "significant" number of retirements and not enough new applicants to replace them.
About half of all drivers are 60 or older, he said, and there have been five retirements in January alone.
Anglophone West district transportation manager Daniel Wishart says the shortage of school bus drivers leads to several runs being cancelled daily, but he has no control over pay, which might attract more people to the job. (Daniel Wishart/LinkedIn)
Green acknowledged that driving a school bus isn't for everyone.
The split shift hours are a problem for some, for example.
But it worked for her.
"I went home and that gave me time to do house chores and whatnot. And … when I first started in '97, I had an elderly mother. So the part-time hours worked good for me because I had to see to her needs as well."
The wages may also be too low for some prospective drivers, she said.
Before Green retired, she was making more than $21 per hour.
She was "happy" with that, as a second income for her household, but acknowledged, "you couldn't raise a family on it."
Green liked driving a school bus but says the wages might be too low to get enough people interested in the job. (Submitted by Karen Green)
A perk was that she was able to park the bus at her home, which eliminated the cost of commuting.
Travel cost may be a barrier for some potential spare drivers, she suggested, who might have to drive 30 to 45 minutes to get to the bus, with no reimbursement.
It's especially challenging for families that only have one vehicle, she said.
After seeing interested job applicants walk away over money, Wishart supports higher pay and said a guaranteed 30 hours a week for the 10 months school is in would also be helpful.
Wishart says 35 to 40 out of its 254 bus drivers are unable to come to work most days. (Submitted by Craig Dykeman)
In the current economic climate, many potential drivers have greater financial obligations and no trouble finding better full-time options, he said.
Spokespersons for several other school districts said they are usually able to cover daily bus runs using available drivers and spares, but acknowledged they have frequent bus delays and are always looking to hire bus drivers.
Iris Lloyd, president of CUPE Local 1253, the New Brunswick Council of School District Unions, said during a recent news conference that the province was having "a major problem recruiting and retaining school bus drivers."
Lloyd said this would continue until "a real wage incentive" is offered.
Iris Lloyd, president of CUPE Local 1253, says higher wages are needed to make driving school bus a more attractive job. (CBC)
The contract for school bus drivers and custodians expires at the end of March.
The provincial government has received notice to bargain, but no dates for that have been set, said Alycia Bartlett, a spokesperson for the Department of Finance and Treasury Board.
Wishart noted that a high school diploma is no longer required to become a bus driver and said some new recruitment strategies and solutions are being tried.
The district has a new recruitment officer, he said, who is working with the Education Department on a marketing campaign.
The job has a lot to offer, said Green.
"If you if you like to drive and you like to see the countryside and you like children, then that's the job for you," she said.
"I liked working with children, those little smiley faces that you see first thing in the morning and the funny little story sometimes that they'll tell you is is worth every bit."
Drivers get good training, support from school administrators, health benefits and summers and storm days off, she added.
Green also enjoyed the time she spent working as a spare driver.
"I got to see parts of my area that I never would have otherwise," she said.
Wishart encouraged anyone who may be interested in becoming a school bus driver to visit the district's website or call its assistant transportation manager, Scott Barton.