When students returned to school in August and September, numerous media reports drew attention to school bus driver shortages across the country. The turbulence resulting from these shortages has at times been dramatic. In Louisville, Kentucky, school district leaders fumbled the rollout of an expensive new routing software intended to reduce the number of school bus drivers needed, leading to misplaced students and forcing the school district to halt classes for more than a week. Meanwhile, in New York City, the union contract for school bus drivers expired, with contentious negotiations resulting in a narrowly averted strike.
School bus drivers remain a vital part of the education system. Roughly half of school children rely on bus services to get to school. Interrupted services and instability can disrupt learning time and contribute to absenteeism. Reduced bus services can be a particularly challenging hurdle for children with disabilities, who sometimes travel far distances for specialized education. With many students and families already trying to recover from challenges and learning disruptions caused by the pandemic, it is more important than ever to have services as basic as bus transportation to school functioning effectively.
Bus driver employment has improved, but remains woefully inadequate
Figure A shows 12-month rolling averages of K–12 school bus driver employment. The figure shows employment broken out by whether the bus driver is a state and local government employee (i.e., they’re employed by the school district or other relevant state or local public agency) or a private-sector employee (i.e., the school district contracts bus service to a private company or the bus driver works for a private school). The data show that school bus driver employment continues to be far below pre-pandemic levels. There were approximately 192,400 bus drivers working in K–12 schools in September 2023, down 15.1% from September 2019. Employment for state and local government school bus drivers has fallen 13.6% to 156,600 workers over the same period, while private school bus driver employment has declined 21.5% from 43,300 workers to around 34,000.
Although school bus driver employment has increased from its trough in the pandemic (when it was down 32.5%), states and local governments have much to do to return school bus driver numbers to adequate levels. Figure A shows that even before the pandemic, the number of bus drivers working in elementary and secondary schools had not returned to levels that existed during the Great Recession. Approximately 290,000 bus drivers were employed in the fall of 2009, but those employment levels declined 21.8% by 2019. This marked decline reflects the results of austerity and budget cuts beginning in the early 2010s.
During the same period, student enrollment at public K–12 schools grew by 1.4 million. Like other public education workers, public school bus drivers are being asked to do more with less overall capacity. Asking fewer bus drivers to pick up more students means longer routes, earlier morning pick-ups, and later drop-offs. These burdensome logistics can increase the likelihood of a student missing school time and diminish their chances of participating in other activities—not to mention the additional burden they can place on parents trying to coordinate work schedules.
School bus driver employment is still struggling to recover to pre-pandemic levels: State and local government (public sector) and private-sector school bus driver employment in elementary and secondary schools, 2008–2023
|Date||All school bus drivers employment||Public-sector school bus driver employment||Private-sector school bus driver employment|
Notes: 12-month rolling averages of monthly CPS employment data. Does not include school bus drivers who are federally employed, self-employed, or unpaid family workers. Does not include school bus drivers employed in other industries.
Source: EPI analysis of CPS microdata.
Bus drivers tend to be older and are paid dismal weekly wages
Although the worst health threats of the pandemic have abated, school bus drivers are still sharply impacted by the pandemic’s fallout. School bus drivers tend to be significantly older than the typical worker. In 2021, 72.6% of state and local government school bus drivers were age 50 and older, compared with 37.5% of state and local government employees and 30.8% of private-sector workers. The age makeup of the school bus driver workforce made these workers more vulnerable to the effects of COVID, contributing to workers leaving the profession and being reluctant to return. Since the return to in-person schooling, bus drivers also report increased confrontations with students and parents.
However, many of the challenges of the profession predate COVID. For one, school bus driver wages are far lower than most other workers, according to our analysis of Current Population Survey (CPS) microdata. The typical school bus driver earned $20.00 an hour in 2022, which is 16.8% less than the median wage for all workers in the economy ($24.04). However, the average public school bus driver works only around 32 hours per week, meaning that the weekly wages for bus drivers are significantly lower than the hourly wage might imply. School bus drivers often are not full-time employees and instead work a “split-shift” schedule coinciding with the beginning and end of the school day. Figure B shows that, in 2022, the median school bus driver earned $548 in weekly wages, which is approximately 43.0% less than the median weekly wage for all workers ($961).
School bus drivers earn 43% less in weekly wages than the typical worker and have not seen significant wage increases since the financial crisis: Three-year averages of real weekly median wages of school bus drivers and all workers, 2006–2008, 2017–2019, and 2020–2022
|All workers||Bus drivers in elementary and secondary schools|
|2006–2008||$ 857||$ 522|
|2017–2019||$ 905||$ 559|
|2020–2022||$ 961||$ 548|
Note: All wage values in 2022 dollars.
Source: EPI analysis of CPS ORG microdata.
Since the Great Recession, hourly wages of school bus drivers have struggled to keep pace with median worker wage growth. Figure C shows that real hourly wages for the median worker grew 5.3% between 2008 and 2019, while growth was only 1.5% for school bus drivers. During the same period, weekly wage growth for school bus drivers (7.0%) slightly outpaced the median (5.6%). This is because school bus driver hours grew modestly over the decade, presumably because employment decreases and student enrollment increases required more hours of work to be filled by fewer workers. From 2019 to 2022, hourly wages for school bus drivers increased by 4.9%, a welcome increase over the post-Great Recession period but still lagging median worker wage growth (5.7%).
Further wage increases are badly needed for a profession that must recruit new workers, especially since current low wages mean many bus drivers live in poverty. In 2021, 7.8% of school bus drivers had incomes below the poverty line, which is greater than the 5.6% share of private-sector workers in poverty and more than double the 3.4% of public-sector workers in poverty.
Wage growth for school bus drivers has been slow since the financial crisis: Percent change in real hourly and weekly wages for all workers and school bus drivers, 2008–2019 and 2019–2022
|All workers||School bus drivers|
|Weekly wage change 2008–2019||5.6%||7.0%|
|Weekly wage change 2019–2022||6.1%||-1.8%|
|Hourly wage change 2008–2019||5.3%||1.5%|
|Hourly wage change 2019–2022||5.7%||4.9%|
Source: EPI analysis of CPS ORG microdata.
Improving bus driver jobs and solving staffing shortages are not only important for the welfare and success of students, but also for advancing racial and gender equity. Figure D shows that like other public-sector workers, school bus drivers are disproportionately Black and women workers. In 2021, 20.0% of state and local government school bus drivers were Black, compared with 13.3% of all state and local government employees and 10.8% of private-sector workers. Women are more concentrated in the school bus driver profession than in the private-sector workforce, but not at such high levels as in the overall public sector. More than half (54.3%) of state and local government school bus drivers are women, compared with 46.8% of all private-sector workers and 59.5% of all state and local government workers.
The concentration of Black workers and women in public school bus driving reflects the public sector historically offering more equitable opportunities for women and people of color. In particular, state and local government jobs are subject to equal opportunity and affirmative action regulations that have been shown to be effective anti-discrimination policies.
Public school bus drivers are more likely to be women and Black workers than workers in the private sector: Share of state and local government school bus drivers, all state and local government workers, and private-sector workers by gender and race/ethnicity
|Group||State and local government school bus drivers||All state and local government workers||Private-sector workers|
Note: AAPI stands for Asian American and Pacific Islander.
Source: EPI analysis of 2021 American Community Survey microdata.
An effective public education system depends on critical support staff to run effectively. The current bus driver shortage is a result of more than a decade of disinvestment in these professionals. The unfair burden of these disruptions is most damaging to the education and well-being of the students who need it the most, particularly students with disabilities. In light of these disruptions, it is imperative that state and local policymakers, school districts, and communities act to fairly compensate and invest in their bus drivers and other school support staff.
The data in Figure A is restricted to bus drivers reporting that they work in elementary and secondary schools. This classification leaves out a significant number of school bus drivers but is the only way to examine trends in school bus driver employment before 2018. Prior to 2018, there was only a single Census Occupation Classification code for bus drivers, with no differentiation between school bus drivers and other types of bus drivers. The 2018 codes added separate Census codes for school bus drivers and “transit and intercity” bus drivers. With the updated classification, we can identify that around 33% of school bus drivers do not work in the elementary and secondary school industry. Table 1 shows that the majority of these school bus drivers work in “bus service and urban transit.” In 2019, there were more than 106,000 school bus drivers employed in “bus service and urban transit,” around 30% of the total number of school bus drivers. Unlike school bus drivers in elementary and secondary schools, “bus service and urban transit” school bus drivers are more likely to be private-sector workers. In 2019, 83.5% of these workers were in the private sector, compared with 17.4% of school bus drivers classified in elementary and secondary schools. “Bus service and urban transit” school bus driver employment was also significantly harmed by the pandemic. From 2019 to 2021 (the most recent ACS data available), employment for this subset of school bus drivers fell 18.7%, compared with 16.5% for all school bus drivers. For now, the pandemic does not seem to have significantly changed the share of workers who are privately or publicly employed. The share of school bus drivers who are state and local government employees increased slightly between 2019 and 2021 from 59.2% to 62.2% since private school bus driver employment fell more steeply during the pandemic.
EPI analysis of American Community Survey microdata.
In 2021, 17.8% of private school bus drivers were Black.
Employment and change in employment for school bus drivers by class of worker and selected industries
|Industry group||Class of worker||Count||Share of total||Count||Share of total||2019 to 2021 percent change in employment|
|All school bus drivers||Private||134,220||39.0%||102,459||35.7%||-23.7%|
|“Elementary and secondary schools” bus drivers||Private||39,779||17.4%||31,163||16.2%||-21.7%|
|“Bus service and urban transit” school bus drivers||Private||88,541||83.5%||66,261||76.9%||-25.2%|
Notes: S&L stands for state and local government. “Other” includes self-employed workers, federal employees, and unpaid family workers. “Elementary and secondary schools” bus drivers includes both “school bus drivers” and “transit and intercity bus drivers.”
Source: EPI analysis of American Community Survey microdata.
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