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Report: Wisconsin has lost nearly 18 percent of school bus drivers in last 2 decades

Average age of licensed school bus driver is 3 years older than it was in 2007, according to DMV data

A bus driver holds their bus ID while in the driver's seat of a school bus
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation

State data shows there are nearly 18 percent fewer school bus drivers in Wisconsin than there were 15 years ago. Experts say the growing shortage will likely get worse, thanks to an aging workforce.

A report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum looked at data from the state Division of Motor Vehicles on people with commercial drivers licenses, or CDLs, who have an “S” endorsement for driving school buses. 

The review found that from 2007 to 2022, the number of licensed school bus drivers fell by 3,062 drivers, or nearly 18 percent. Tyler Byrnes, researcher for the Wisconsin Policy Forum, said by comparison, total commercial drivers licenses decreased by 8 percent over the same period.

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Only drivers with S endorsements are allowed to operate school buses in Wisconsin. But Byrnes said it’s likely that some of the people with the endorsement aren’t using it to drive students.

“Either they still have the licenses and they’ve retired, or they’ve picked a different vehicle to drive,” he said. “If somebody can stop driving a school bus and start driving a delivery truck and make more money or have better hours, you might understand why they might make that choice.”

Cherie Hime, executive director of the Wisconsin School Bus Association, said the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on these numbers.

“People were leaving for other CDL jobs that were available and driving while schools were closed,” she said. “They didn’t want to wait to start driving again. They needed income at that time, so they needed to keep moving.”

Hime said the industry is still feeling the impact. They’re focused on encouraging drivers to come back, while also working to attract new people to the profession.

A bar graph showing declining numbers of licensed school bus drivers and passenger bus drivers from 2007 to 2022.
(Courtesy of Wisconsin Policy Forum)

Statewide school enrollment has been on the decline for years. But Byrnes said the number of drivers has fallen much faster. There were more than 68 students per licensed bus driver in 2022, which is almost 10 more kids per driver compared to 2007.

Even if enrollment declines continue, Byrnes said that doesn’t mean districts will need fewer drivers. He said students will still be spread out around school districts, leading to similar routes for fewer children.

The report also found that a fifth of licensed school bus drivers are 65 years or older. Byrnes said he wasn’t shocked by this finding

“We thought, ‘Sure, school bus driving is a great retirement job. That’s probably always been the case,’” he said. “But we looked at school bus drivers in 2007, and they were, on average, three years younger.”

 He said that means the shortage will likely get worse in the coming years as more current drivers decide to retire.

To Hime, seeing the average age of drivers increase isn’t entirely a bad sign. She said it shows some drivers have remained with the profession despite the industry’s challenges. And Hime said bus companies are turning to new groups of people, like the moms of school-age children, as a younger generation that can help fill these jobs in coming years.

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