A new program offered at the Commercial Safety College could address a growing concern for school boards around the province.

The educational facility in Masstown recently launched a school bus driver training program and it’s already caught the attention of the Chignecto Central Regional School Board, which has been consistently facing a driver shortage.

“We always seem to be in short supply of drivers,” said Sandy Lynds, co-ordinator of transportation for CCRSB. “It’s mainly because we’re dealing with a fair amount of retirements on a regular basis. We’re a predominantly aging workforce as far as bus drivers go which means most of our drivers have retired from another career and are now more or less looking for something to do on a part-time basis.”

As a result, it means drivers aren’t spending a lot of years behind the wheel before retiring for a second time. That creates ‘a fairly large turnover rate,’ according to Lynds.

This year alone, CCRSB will have nine driver openings in one area and 13 altogether for regular bus drivers. Lynds says those spots will be filled in time for the new school year by those currently in the driver’s pool. But without people consistently entering the pool, it puts the school board in a tough situation.

“We’re certainly hoping they attract some people,” said Lynds.

The bus driver shortage wasn’t going unnoticed. Jeremy Nichols, general manager of CSC was aware of the challenges facing school boards. He reached out to Lynds to see if there was something that could be offered in an attempt to bridge the gap.

The college is now offering a three-week program.

“It’s a little shy of40 hours each week,” said Nichols. “Approximately one week of the course is classroom based. Participants learn some basic mechanical pre-trip inspection training and the standard two-day first aid program. The final two weeks is practical. So that means they’re driving the bus and maneuvering it in a variety of situations which includes town and highway driving.”

Since kicking off on March 20, only four individuals can enrol at a time. Nichols says keeping numbers low allows the program to get off the ground while ensuring students are receiving proper training.

Those enrolling need to be at least 25 years old and possess a clean criminal record and driving abstract. When they finish, the goal is for them to slide into a position that’s already waiting for them.

“We want to make sure the people enrolling in the program are employable,” said Nichols. “Part of our application process includes an interview with the school board. If they’re approved by the school board for employment we issue a letter of acceptance. So the applicant is rubber stamped and told there is a position waiting for them as long as they pass the course. It’s a great way to make sure we’re putting out the right kind of candidates and we’re no wasting someone’s time or money.”

That kind of setup makes life simpler for Lynds. It means the school board doesn’t have to worry about advertising or training future bus drivers.

“It definitely saves us money as far as training goes and having our employees train new drivers,” Lynds said. “I’m hopeful, because we’re under time constraints and budget constraints that the college can do a better job training than what we can in-house. I’m not saying we do a bad job, it’s just our people are under more time constraints. We don’t have one or two people who specifically handle training. Our in-house trainers are bus drivers as well.”

He added the examiners work with the drivers following the completion of the course in an effort to prepare them for a bus full of children.

“There’s a big difference between driving an empty bus during training and actually driving with kids onboard,” he said. “But we’re pleased with how things are setup. They set out the curriculum and the guidelines. We needed to simply make sure it was what we were looking for and I’m not speaking just about the driver training. Things like first aid and WHIMIS are all important. Once all that was in place we were confident in signing off on it.”

When it comes to pay, all drivers make the same amount of money right across the province. At $22.52 an hour, Lynds says there are no additional pay levels.

However, depending on the board, he says there are benefits offered. With Chignecto Central, there is a pension and medical available to full-time drivers.

In addition to CCRSB, eight other school boards in the province have signed a letter of support. That leaves the Halifax Regional School Board which has its bussing handled by Stock Transportation.

Additional details can be found at www.safetycollege.ca. Courses are set to begin on May 23, June 12, July 4, July 24 and August 14.