GRAND FORKS — After four decades with the city of Grand Forks, Dale Bergman is finding himself in a new role — though it’s a familiar one.
As the local school district has scrambled to cover a driver shortage, the city has stepped in to offer help. That means shifting standard routes to help ferry kids to school and, in a few cases, drivers hopping behind the wheel of a school bus to pitch in.
That includes Bergman, the top official with Cities Area Transit, who on Thursday, Sept. 30, was driving Dietrich Bus Service’s bus No. 1421, stopping at Viking Elementary and South Middle School. It’s an extraordinary solution to the driver shortage, but COVID-19 and a profoundly shifting economy have made for extraordinary times.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Bergman said with a laugh. “I know some people look (at me) like, ‘That guy’s nuts.’ To me, I got the school bus license when I first started with the city 37 years ago.”
Bergman said it doesn’t feel any different than driving a regular city bus, though having a nose out on the front of the bus — in contrast to the flat-faced standard city bus — is a little different. His role is part of a patchwork solution that’s shifted drivers from Cities Area Transit into school service in recent weeks, and one that Bergman said takes some administrative finesse.
“It’s not going bad at all,” Bergman said. “At times it’s been a challenge, because when we get people that are sick, or they had their scheduled vacation, we have to beg, borrow and steal to get people to (cover shifts). But that’s what we’ve done. Our folks have been terrific.”
It’s not clear how long the city’s help will last. Bergman points out that the federal requirements for becoming a bus driver are set to become more stringent early next year, potentially throttling the labor supply even more. He’d first thought city help might need to last one or two months; he now says thinks the agreement with the district might last through the school year.
School officials make a point of thanking the city for its help. Scott Berge, the business manager for Grand Forks Public Schools, said he can’t be sure how much longer the district will need it.
“That’s a question we have as well,” he said. “At this point, it depends a lot on the ability for Dietrich to secure additional drivers.”
The shortage is not just in Grand Forks. There are concerns about bus driver availability from Pennsylvania to Arizona, leaving officials seemingly everywhere scrambling to cover routes. Shortages even extend to Cities Area Transit itself, where Bergman said he’d prefer three more drivers on staff.
The precise cost of the new plan won’t be clear for weeks, or perhaps months. Bergman said the city billed the school district for slightly more than $4,000 for five days of student pickups and driver time in August — but it’s hard to call that a firm, week-to-week number. Bergman and district officials say shifting student pickup counts, the seniority of the drivers who happen to help and more can shift costs.
That’s part of why Berge said it’s hard to know whether busing expenses will be above, below or level with pre-pandemic years. He’s still waiting on forthcoming invoices from both the city and Dietrich Bus Services, the district’s typical busing contractor, to know more.
Dietrich did not return a request for comment prior to deadline for this story. An official with the company previously said they were caught off-guard at the end of the summer — surprised by how many retirements and no-shows depopulated their ranks. That news, which came to the school district in August, kicked off a cycle of frantic planning to ensure Grand Forks children can get to school.
The bus shortage is part of a broader pattern of scarce labor unfolding nationwide. A late August survey from three leading American student transit groups found that 51% of participating school districts said their driver shortage was “severe” or “desperate”; at least 78% said it was worsening.
"It sounds like all over the country, people didn't expect it,” said Bill Palmiscno, a Grand Forks School Board member.
There are a lot of theories for exactly why that’s happened. In Chicago, NPR reports that about 10% of the school district’s drivers quit rather than comply with a COVID vaccine requirement. On the other hand, the report notes, school bus drivers are often required to be in close contact with children 12 and younger, who cannot yet be vaccinated against the virus, under current regulations. That can make the job a health risk.
Mark Schill, a consultant with Grand Forks’ Praxis Strategy Group, pointed out that the broader labor market is making itself felt, too. The demographics of the United States are currently top-heavy — with the relatively large baby boomer generation reaching and passing retirement age. That means a lot of people exiting the workforce at once; something especially likely to show up in fields with older workers, like school transportation and bussing.
"It's not only bus drivers. It's certainly something that's made the headlines, but you look at almost every industry now and there's difficulty,” Berge said. “Restaurants are closed on some days now because they don't have staff now. Hospitals (struggling to find) nurses.”