We’ve all seen the headlines: school districts are struggling to hire and retain enough drivers to operate their bus routes. Commercially-licensed drivers have been in short supply across industries since 2020, when thousands of furloughed drivers retired or found non-driving employment. To drive a yellow school bus, drivers must have two additional endorsements — one for passenger transportation, and another for school transportation — which narrows the pool considerably.
With these hard-to-find drivers needed urgently for routes that require yellow buses, many districts are looking to strengthen the non-CDL driver pools they use for small-vehicle transportation programs. Often necessary to transport McKinney-Vento eligible students and students with disabilities, alternative transportation typically requires a different, though no less qualified, driver profile. With a strong pool of small-vehicle drivers — selected for maturity and caregiving experience, and further vetted with criminal background checks, drug and alcohol testing, and requirements to complete safety and WAV-related certifications — districts have more freedom to deploy their CDL drivers exactly where they’re needed.
But recruiting these types of drivers, particularly for a split shift with both morning and evening hours, can be a challenge of its own. At Via, we’ve got it down to a science: we’ve recruited, trained, and retained tens of thousands of small-vehicle drivers across our transportation services. Over the past year, when the broader transit industry has been hit by significant labor shortages, we’ve increased our driver supply by 100%. Because we understand that driver consistency is important for students, we routinely recruit 50% more drivers than required to fill active shifts, and incentivize drivers to commit to the same routes in advance.
Here’s how we do it.
The first step to building and maintaining a robust pipeline of qualified drivers is setting realistic goals. With school district partners, this exercise can be especially challenging: districts face significant fluctuations in student transportation volume throughout a given year. In light of these circumstances, we prioritize flexibility in our recruitment strategy, continually moving drivers through our pipeline such that increases in driver volume can be swiftly accommodated.
Not everybody who applies will be qualified, and not everybody we extend an offer to will accept. So we build our pipeline model based on historical benchmarks for how many applicants we tend to offer positions for school transportation programs, how many of those offered are usually accepted, and how many of those who accept complete training and actually start driving. In markets that are particularly competitive, we work from experience and assume a lower conversion rate from applicants to drivers.
This is also the time when our team finalizes our budget, which means determining how much we’ll spend on various aspects of marketing (out-of-home, digital, print), bonuses and incentives, drug testing, training, and so on. We’ve seen cost per application (or, the total amount spent by an agency on the digital marketing required to receive a single applicant) in the transportation industry rise from $19.23 in December of 2019 to $30.72 in the fall of 2021, so we make it a priority to understand where candidates “drop off” from our pipeline, and at what scale, to ensure that such a significant spend sees returns (Appcast Research, October 2021).
For example, if we invest $3,000 in marketing to receive 100 applications, we’re effectively spending $30 per application and, depending on drop-off rates, we could see marketing costs per driver reach as high as $300. Given the additional investments in background testing, drug testing, and training that occur in this latter part of the hiring funnel, our total cost per driver would be even higher. Reviewing historical data and planning with these considerations in mind helps us scale back spend while delivering results.
Crafting a compelling offering is a fundamental part of marketing our job postings. Simply searching on Google for ‘driver jobs’ or ‘driver wanted’ can give a sense of what agencies, school districts, logistics firms, and private companies in our district partner’s area are paying for advertising, and clicking around can reveal the details of their hiring packages. This is one of the easiest ways we gauge local competition in the market, before setting our own plan for driver earnings and incentives.
Put yourself in your potential applicant’s shoes: what would you search for when looking for a new role? Then we put ourselves in our potential applicant’s shoes: what would we search for when looking for a new role? We make sure to mention all components of pay in our advertised rates (overtime, annual increases, hazard pay, vacation days, retirement contributions, perks) to attract the best talent — not only will this increase our driver pool, but it can also reduce dropoff and increase the number of conversions from applicant to working driver.
Organic / SEO
Of course, what we include in our job listings doesn’t matter much if nobody sees it. On the organic side, we increase our click rates with punchy, descriptive titles — it’s best to stick to one to three words, which perform better from both a click rate and apply rate perspective. Again, from the applicant’s perspective: what would we search for when looking for a new role? In terms of distribution channels, large job boards like Indeed, LinkedIn, and ZipRecruiter, will always be a safe bet, but we don’t rule out Google and Facebook — though they can be costly, they also have the distinct advantage of targeting both active and passive job seekers.
On the paid side, it’s important to develop a comprehensive digital marketing strategy to stand out, especially in this competitive market. We work with our marketing team to draft copy and design visuals for social media posts, social media ads, search ads, classifieds, and even physical flyers posted at key locations in the district. What can be tracked can be improved, so we typically invest more heavily in digital advertising efforts and continue to A / B test copy variations, budget allocation, and location throughout the process.
Conversion and tracking
At this point, we’re ready to convert qualified leads into drivers. As a first step, we initiate email and SMS campaigns for easy communication between our team and our applicants. Depending on the market, we conduct higher-touch outreach by phone and in person. We’ve often found success with a hybrid approach: offering candidates the option to either complete their application and interviews virtually, or in person.
Through A/B testing, we’ve found that in-person onboarding makes for a faster process, better conversion, and lower cost per hire. In-person interviews can also serve as a more inclusive option for candidates who may be uncomfortable with technology.
Finally, we track results and actively experiment with our hiring practices to improve our outcomes. We meticulously track progress against targets: if we expect to receive 100 applications and only receive 40, we take that as an opportunity to test different marketing strategies, driver offerings, and email / SMS copy. We meet regularly with our district partners to monitor progress and get recommendations as well.
While hiring drivers is particularly difficult right now, the truth is that these strategies shouldn’t just be reserved for challenging times. Reviewing historical data prior to setting goals, understanding the competition, using creative copy in job listings, and continuously experimenting are all necessary steps to maintain a healthy driver pipeline regardless of the state of the industry. The methods we’ve outlined here can help you get the best drivers even when conditions improve and can set your team up for success throughout 2024 and long into the future.
Interested in getting started? Reach out.
Greg Centini is a Partnerships Principal with Via Student Transit, bringing Via's technology and operations solutions to partnerships with school districts across the country.