By Brenda Flanagan
To drive a school bus full of rambunctious kids, you need eyes in the back of your head and a busload of patience, says trainer Craig Findley.
“You know, they’re going to be a little loud, but that’s just all part of it,” he said.
Besides patience, you also need a criminal background check, a physical exam and a CDL — Commercial Driver’s License. Integrity Transportation’s already running buses for high school freshman orientation. But with school scheduled to start after Labor Day, Integrity — and many other New Jersey school bus companies — still need to hire more drivers with valid CDLs.
“It’s a little harder this year than it’s been in the past,” said owner Joe Duncan.
Duncan says new federal regulations have made the Commercial Driver’s License test much tougher. In fact, New Jersey’s CDL test failure rates spiked, going from 33 percent to 57 percent in the year since the new test took effect. That’s causing a backup in the hiring lane. Integrity trains its own drivers.
“We used to train maybe five to six hours in the classroom and 10 hours behind the wheel. That was fine. Well, it’s triple that, now. It’s much more involved underneath the hood than just driving,” Duncan said.
“Before they go out on every run, they have to do a pre-bus inspection — inside and out,” Findley said.
Trainees must dive under the hood and learn a long list of safety inspections — done twice a day. Now it can take three months or more to prepare all the required documentation and take the tests. That’s why the Motor Vehicle Commission recently launched an outreach program to help train the trainers.
“But they’re a much better trained driver when they’re done. I don’t think I have a personal problem with it, it’s just catching up to the system,” Duncan said.
All for a part-time job with odd hours that can pay up to $18 an hour. Frank Smith’s been driving for Integrity for 11 years.
“We’re the first ones they see in the morning before they go to school and we can make a difference in their life that way,” Smith said.
“Getting the kids home safe, so that’s the first priority,” Findley said.
Training is intense, but it’s free. That’s why all of the drivers sign a contract promising to spend at least a year working for Integrity Transportation after they get that driver’s license.