The challenge of
finding, keeping and improving drivers
If you're having a hard time finding drivers, you're not alone. A quick March search of Monster.com revealed more than 250 jobs available. CareerBuilder.com revealed more than 800. And a GlassDoor.com search came back with more than 2,000 open positions. To be fair, they're not all tour and charter positions (some are school bus and van-specific), but as Minnesota Coaches' Joe Krois says, "I don't know if there's any company that won't tell you it's a challenge to find drivers."
Minnesota Coaches has it better than a lot of companies. Based in Duluth, where a combination of a moderate standard of living and a limited amount of high-paying jobs can make coach driving more attractive than in some markets, Minnesota Coaches has the additional advantage of running a school bus fleet. Krois says that the company that he runs with his father and brother typically plucks its tour and charter drivers out of its school-bus driver pool, where he can spot drivers who are friendly and show initiative as well as being able to handle the vehicle.
"I try to hire from within," says Krois. "I hire as much on personality as driving skills, and I will take regular school bus drivers and put them through training."
So what are some of the challenges facing operators?
Hours and lifestyle challenges are big ones.
It's not always an easy job, often entailing long hours, stretches of time away from home, and a knack for customer service.
It's common for coach drivers to come from the ranks of the retired. Take Deb Cunningham, who drives for Escape Coach Lines in Alberta. It's actually her second time around as a driver, having retired more than 10 years ago from another driving job at Laidlaw, where she worked her way to the top of the seniority list. She was valued for her ability to train others and administer driving tests, and she prides herself on her customer service focus.
"Customer service is the most important thing," says Cunningham. "When people come on board, it's like the bus is your store. Your store has to look clean, and customers have to appreciate what they're getting. And you have to do what the customers want you to do. If they want to see that little mountain over there, or to see that building over here, you have to be prepared to tell them about it and do it with a smile."
Cunningham stands out among her fellow drivers for a reason beyond her training expertise and passion for customer service: She's a woman. Though women are well-represented in the ranks of school bus drivers, relatively few of them work as tour and charter drivers. And for many operators, that may represent a hiring opportunity.
Krois isn't sure why, noting that one of the women who drives for his company is one of the best drivers he's ever seen. He doesn't believe there are physical barriers, noting that passengers' bags are seldom very heavy, and the women he's worked with are just as able to handle them as men are.
Where driver pools come from
So where do operators find their drivers? Word of mouth, of course, is a favorite hiring tool. Krois says he especially likes hearing from retired firefighters, EMTs and military service personnel, many of whom come to him after being referred by a friend who has also worked in that profession.
Craigslist.com and other jobs sites, along with newspaper ads, can bring in the applicants as well. Minnesota Coaches additionally likes to park a big yellow school bus in front of its offices with a big "now hiring" sign. Krois says it's highly effective, and since his motor coach drivers usually come from within the ranks of his school bus crew, it works for both sides of the business.
Getting hiring help
In addition, insurance companies can be highly helpful. Lancer Insurance Company offers a wide array of resources for motor coach operators in an effort to both provide top customer service and to help operators avoid claims. Many of them focus on driver training and behavior.
Randy O'Neill, director of communications for Lancer, says that it's not uncommon for operators to call the insurer or insurance agents for guidance in hiring drivers, from obtaining basic how-to resources to querying them on how to check out the driver, including any possible criminal records.
Lancer helps operators by offering some very detailed driver training videos, on-site safety checks, and guidelines on how to set up an incident response system that will train company management and drivers to properly respond to any potential accidents.
For the purposes of hiring drivers, Lancer offers a guide* that includes detailed information such as how to not violate equal-employment guidelines, sample interview questions, a new-employee checklist, how to deal with driver documentation, how to implement substance-abuse testing and even templates for evaluating road skills. The company also offers suggestions for establishing medical standards and procedures such as designating a company physician and suggesting the keeping of secure files.
Says O'Neill, "Your drivers become you when they sit behind that wheel. And with over 40 passengers seated behind them, and a $5 million liability policy riding along, you really want to check them out before you hand over the keys."
Lancer has even created a driver recognition program, helping operators to deal out a little positive reinforcement for a job well done.
Keeping them happy once they're hired
Says Krois, "I don't pretend to be the cheapest guy on the block, but I do try to bring the most value, with the best quality and the best service." And that means paying his drivers as well as he can, and treating them like the valuable assets that they are. He says it's not uncommon for him or one of his family members to essentially wait up for a driver who has had to stay out late into the night because of a bad winter storm, and the Krois family keeps a close eye on staff, trying to make sure that drivers are neither overworked nor underused. "We're a business that cares," says Krois.
Lancer, too, offers tips on retaining drivers, starting with the admonition that employers should let employees know about any potential negatives, such as odd hours, that a new hire might encounter. The company also suggests monitoring turnover and making wise use of exit interviews to figure out if drivers are leaving because of factors the employer can control at least in part, such as pay, opportunity and a positive work environment.
Remembering the rewards
Krois notes that many drivers who come in just looking for a little part-time "fun money" to supplement their pensions end up driving pretty much full time. And it's usually because they find out they love the job. From the opportunity to see the country to the excitement of regularly meeting new people, it can be a job with a high level of satisfaction.
Cunningham, who advises drivers (and anyone who works) to do their jobs with the same level of devotion that they would invest in a hobby, says, "You learn about so many people and different cultures. I've got more places to stay in this world. People give me their addresses and say things like, 'If you get to Germany, come visit me and I'll give you a tour.'"
She recounts one trip a number of years ago that included an elderly man from England. He had never traveled much, if at all, and he had saved up for a long time for his trip through the Canadian Rockies. He and Cunningham hit it off. She received a letter from him afterward, letting her know how much he had appreciated her driving and people skills. It made her feel great. And then, not long after, she got another letter, this time from his wife. The gentleman had died. It had been his last trip, and his widow wanted Cunningham to know that she had made a huge difference in making it a special one for him.
She says she defies anyone to think that driving a coach is a "lowly" job. "People come from all over the world, and for a lot of them, this bus trip is all they can afford and something they'll probably do only once. And they're putting their lives in your hands. So if you're feeling bad, or like you don't have a life, come ride with me for a week. Then tell me you're just a bus driver."