In this Aug. 18, 2021, file photo, a help wanted sign for Cyr Bus hangs on a school bus in the parking lot of the Old Town-Orono YMCA. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A shortage of school bus drivers in the Bangor area and elsewhere has made it difficult for schools to juggle the everyday tasks of driving children home with student-athletes’ needs to get to their competitions.

The shortage of bus drivers is another facet of the national and statewide labor shortage that is plaguing almost every job sector, from substitute teachers to burger flippers.

An incentive program that launched this summer in the Hampden area to recruit new drivers had attracted only two applicants by the end of August, said Dustin Ireland, manager of Cyr Bus Lines’ Hampden division, which provides transit for Regional School Unit 22.

The bus company was offering $300 bonuses to new drivers who underwent training for their commercial driver’s license, while those who already had the license would receive $650 after they had been on the job for at least three months, Ireland said.

That hiring program has stopped since school started, though the company may start recruiting again in January, Ireland said.

RSU 22 has struggled to find substitutes when its bus drivers go on leave or have to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, Superintendent Regan Nickels said. The district serves Hampden, Winterport, Newburgh and Frankfort.

“We do sometimes have to combine routes, because we don’t have the drivers to take each and every bus route home,” Nickels said.

School bus driver shortages are not unique to Maine. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker called up 250 National Guard troops to help out districts struggling with driver shortages earlier this month.

The biggest pressure point is sporting events, because student-athletes typically leave for their competitions around the same time as school dismissals, when drivers are most needed, Ireland said.

“I end up having to double up buses occasionally here,” he said.

He estimated that he had about 23 to 25 drivers to cover RSU 22, but another three or four were needed to have a full stable of drivers who could cover absences.

It takes a “determined person” to drive a school bus, and people he’s spoken to have expressed anxiety about driving such a large vehicle and having to shuttle more than 40 kids at once, Ireland said.

Vehicle monitors, who manage student behavior and make sure kids are following the rules so drivers can focus on the road, are also in short supply, Nickels said.

“We’re not getting the number of takers for these positions that we would like to see,” she said.

The ideal driver is someone on the older side, who’s retired and can use extra income, or someone whose kids are already in the school system, Ireland said.

His drivers are generally in their late 50s or early 60s. That presents the possibility of shortages a few years down the road when those people retire.

“I don’t really have an influx of new people to replace them,” Ireland said.

RSU 22 has advertised for new people in its district newsletter, often running profiles on drivers and highlighting how rewarding a career it can be to drive a bus, Nickels said.

“Drivers are the first people to welcome kids into school in the morning, and they’re the last ones to say goodbye to them at night,” she said. “They develop very strong relationships with kids.”

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.