Horry County Schools is badly in need of bus drivers.
Last Friday, the district told parents that buses would be delayed because a lot of drivers were sick.
On Wednesday, a driver was charged after he got into an accident on Carolina Forest Boulevard. No students were injured.
The district has 397 bus driver positions, and 29 are currently vacant.
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But why the vacancies?
“I think it’s real simple,” said Executive Director of Transportation Jim Wright. “People with a CDL are in high demand, not just in the bus industry but in the trucking industry also.”
When the economy is in good shape, bus drivers may go look for opportunities elsewhere, he said.
“Driving a bus is not an easy task,” Wright said, citing early hours and split days. “Driving a truck is not an easy task.”
District spokesperson Lisa Bourcier said the drivers start their days between 5:30 a.m. and 5:45 a.m. for the morning routes. They report back to work after 1 p.m. for the afternoon routes.
But starting salary for bus drivers in Horry County Schools is $12 an hour, with inconsistent schedules.
School board chair Joe DeFeo said drivers work as few as 30 hours a week up to more than 40, depending on weather, driving conditions and sickness. He said most of the drivers working fewer hours are new drivers.
“I want the 30-hour issue to be voluntary for the bus drivers who want to work less hours,” he said. “I believe this is the biggest reason we have a shortage right now. My solution is to go to at least 37.5 hours, which was pretty standard four or five years ago.”
The drivers are given 180-day contracts, meaning a new driver could earn between $9,360 and $12,480 per year, and they don’t work during the summer.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, the median household income in Horry County is $43,299.
The district’s biggest competitors for bus drivers are Coast RTA, Coastal Carolina University, and hotels that offer shuttle service, according to Bourcier and Wright.
Coast RTA pays its bus drivers a starting salary of $12.63 with a 50-cent raise after 90 days, said spokesperson Michelle Cantey. The average bus driver salary there is around $14 an hour, she said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, school bus and special client bus drivers in the Myrtle Beach area make an average of $15.63 an hour, while transit and intercity bus drivers make an average of $12.43.
The bus driver shortage isn’t just a local problem.
“The last time we felt good about our driver numbers was during the great recession when jobs were scarce,” Greenville County Schools spokesperson Teri Brinkman said in an email. “Unemployment is around 4 percent in Greenville, which makes hiring and retaining drivers very challenging.”
Greenville, the state’s biggest district, has increased pay and benefits for drivers over the last five years which have helped, but not fixed the problem, Brinkman said.
“This is not just a [South Carolina] problem, but is apparently nationwide,” she said. “I am currently reviewing strategic plans from across the nation and many mention bus driver hiring and retention as an objective.”
Horry County Schools is holding a job fair on Nov. 2 to hire drivers. The district will provide training for applicants to get their CDL license.