FOSTER - Boone County schools has seen a gradual decline in applications for substitute bus operators, so Director of Transportation Josh Brumfield is utilizing his creative thinking skills to find ways to reach potential drivers.

"Anyone in service personnel, which includes transportation, starts out as a substitute," Brumfield said. "As jobs open then they have the opportunity to move into full-time positions. I think that we have to do more than post the openings every two weeks and think outside the box. We have to market these positions and find the right fits. I'm approaching it from that perspective."

In years past, Brumfield said, a substitute would have to wait several years before having the opportunity to become full-time; but today, that path has narrowed significantly.

"I have two substitute drivers that we hired in May that will be full-time through this next job posting because of a lack of subs," he said.

Brumfield has researched the possibilities of advertising and recruiting qualified drivers via billboards throughout the county. He has found social media to be an effective tool as well. Ultimately, he wants quality, dependable people who can be trusted with the county's most precious commodity - its children.

"In years past, we lost drivers to things like the gas pipeline industry - particularly those who had a particular skill set and work history in another industry," he said. "I do feel that the slight uptick we've seen in the mining industry has affected the number of applications we've seen. Coal truck driving is a direct competition for us in filling these positions with quality people."

Currently, Boone County Schools looks to hire about 10 more substitute bus drivers who earn about $100 per day. In most cases, drivers can be done with their responsibilities by 5 p.m. and, depending on their schedule, have some daytime hours available to relax or pursue other interests. Brumfield said the schedule is one of the perks.

"We have people who really like the schedule and they have hobbies or other interests," he said. "We do expect our drivers to make a commitment to us and to make us their primary focus and responsibility."

Three full-time jobs were posted on Sept. 7, but those positions will go to drivers with the most seniority.

"Bus drivers are a big part of our communities," he said. "We do our best to make sure that you can work close to home and keep you there where you want to be but with the shortage, we've had to piece things together daily so that we have coverage across the county."

Applicants will have to go through a process to become a substitute driver.

"It doesn't happen overnight," Brumfield said. "They go through a series of background checks and drug tests along with extensive orientation and a driving program. Our last class started on April 30. We started with six in that class and we've hired three of them. For them to get their CDL license and driver training, it took over four months. All of the training is provided here in Boone County."

Brumfield said a small investment must be made by the applicant for background checks, CDL licenses and drug tests, but after they are employed for one year. the school system will reimburse those costs.

Brumfield, who has worked on the educational side of administration within the school system, said the benefits package was once a primary attraction to the position.

"The health insurance through PEIA was an incentive and at one time it was top notch," he said. "They knew that they wouldn't get rich being a bus operator but they could have a side job and have tremendous health insurance for their families. If our legislature could fix the PEIA problems, it would go a long way in curing the bus driver shortage we are facing. We are not in as bad of shape as some counties and we do work a puzzle every morning."

Full-time operators are eligible for health insurance through the school system.

Brumfield has been able to fill all 40.5 runs throughout the county every day in this early school year. In comparison, Kanawha County was 22 drivers short on the first day of school.

Brumfield said retired substitute bus operators can only work 140 days per year and this limits his options as he navigates a shortage of operators.

Outside of very recent hires, Terry Eplin is one of two non-retiree subs on the roster. Currently, Eplin is subbing for a long-term run. He lives in the Madison-Danville area and serves a route in Van. He was an unemployed heavy equipment mechanic and he was influenced to try the profession by his wife Sabrina, who also works as a bus operator.

"I like the kids," he said. "From my experience, they respect you and they have been great. I like being off in the middle of the day. I like the schedule and I like the people I work with."

Charlotte Stiltner hopes to secure a full-time bus operator position.

"I had been looking for full-time employment and knew there was a shortage of bus drivers," she said. "I love children so I felt this would be a good fit for me."

Stiltner, a 1989 Sherman High graduate, has completed a 40-hour training class. She passed all but one test with 98 percent. Currently, she is working on obtaining required driving hours so she can take her final tests and be hired by the school system.

For more information, email Brumfield at jdbrumfi@k12.wv.us; call 304-369-8089 or visit boonecountyboe.org.

Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at pperry@hdmediallc.com or follow him on Twitter @philipdperry.

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