Why Is There a School Bus Driver Shortage in the U.S.?

Mohit Oberoi, CFA - Author

Nov. 12 2021, Published 8:20 a.m. ET

There has been a shortage of several things in the U.S. Apart from the shortage of some daily use goods, there's also a staffing problem and school bus drivers especially seem to be in short supply. Why is there a school bus driver shortage in the U.S. and when will things get better?

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While the school bus driver shortage is also related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has always been a problem especially when the school year starts.

Labor shortage situation in the U.S.

First, it's important to understand what's driving the current labor shortage situation. The U.S. labor force has come down because over 700,000 people have died during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, labor force participation has been low and many people haven’t returned to labor markets.

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There are multiple reasons why people haven't returned to the labor market. Some of them are concerned about contracting the coronavirus, while others have to take care of their families' needs after the death of a member. A lot of people have also pulled forward their retirement since the elderly are especially at the risk from the coronavirus.

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Bus driver shortage in the U.S. is a structural problem

The bus driver shortage in the U.S. is a structural problem, and it's an annual event when school starts in the fall. School bus drivers often complain of low wages and poor working conditions. Also, in many cases, the jobs aren't unionized.

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However, the problem is much more severe in 2021 than usual. While the overall labor market situation is contributing to the bus driver shortage in the U.S., there are also other aspects.

Many bus drivers lost their jobs since schools were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While students moved to Zoom calls for schooling, school bus drivers also pivoted towards other jobs. Thanks to the rebound in the labor markets, there have been a lot of new employment opportunities for school bus drivers.

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Here's where the structural problem comes into play. The average wages for school bus drivers are low and it's a seasonal job that's limited to the school year. In many cases, school bus drivers are left without wages when the schools are closed.

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Why is there a bus driver shortage in the U.S.?

A lot of school bus drivers seem reluctant to return to their jobs and some of them might have found jobs in alternate industries. There has also been a shortage of truck drivers in the U.S., which is leading to logistics problems for companies.

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Companies like FedEx have been paying premium wages for workers. School bus drivers' skill sets have fungibility with other driving jobs. The average wages for a truck driver are higher than that of a school bus driver.

When will the school bus driver shortage get better?

For the school bus driver shortage to get better, the overall staffing situation has to improve. In 2022, more workers might come back to the job market as COVID-19 vaccinations increase. Also, the structural problem related to low wages for school bus drivers would need to be addressed. In a free labor market where workers are free to choose their jobs, labor needs to be adequately rewarded to retain the workforce.


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