First Student could always use more school bus drivers

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Sue Barbour has a good idea why recent retirees like driving a school bus.

“They have been doing the ‘honey-do’ list a little too long,” Barbour said on a recent visit to First Student offices in Warwick, where she is manager. But even though there are veteran bus drivers – Carol Minear being the senior driver with 40 years – Barbour is looking for people 21 years old and older with a driver’s license to fill the ranks.

Drivers need to get their CDL, or commercial driver’s license, before sliding behind the wheel of a school bus. And once First Student signs on a driver, the company pays them to complete a six- to eight-week training course. The driver is responsible for paying to get a license upgrade as well as a state road test that adds up to about $200.

Barbour said Warwick First Student is ready to take on the new school year with 102 drivers covering at least 86 routes. She expects the number of routes could even be more with the School Department’s decision to have all career and technical center students based at Toll Gate. This is a switch from last academic year when Pilgrim students enrolled at the career center remained Pilgrim students and completed their academic studies at Pilgrim. Now they will become Toll Gate students.

As for being a bus driver, Joann Ayotte identified junior high school students as the most challenging to manage.

“That’s when their hormones are on overdrive,” she said.

Elementary school students are fun and listen to instructions and senior high school students, she said, are either still half asleep when they get on the bus or too focused on what they need to get done to be thinking of causing problems.

Ayotte has been a driver for 14 years, with the last seven of those years as a trainer. It’s a job she takes seriously, as she demonstrated recently.

One of her trainees, actually a veteran driver who moved to Rhode Island, Ann Marie Barczak, displayed her knowledge of a bus, popping the hood and meticulously naming engine components. Barczak described what she was looking for, whether it was a leak, signs of chaffing or wear. Ayotte watched and listened. Barczak moved to the driver side of the engine checking to see that fluids were at their proper level and that air brake hoses were secure.

Ayotte found the inspection thorough, although she pointed out once Barczak gains her state permit and is driving for First Student, drivers aren’t expected to perform under the hood inspections. That’s the job of mechanics.

“You want to check under the bus and look for anything that might have gotten caught there,” she said. She also recommended checking tires.

Erica Neves, a newcomer to bus driving, said she felt the most important thing she has learned from training is “keeping control over it [the bus]. She works for me.”

Neves said the training has made her feel as comfortable behind the wheel of a bus as she does at the wheel of her own car. Obviously, there are some big differences between the two. With a bus there’s no turning right on red or sliding through stop signs and there’s the matter of reporting on time in order to meet the pickup schedule.

Barbour said the pay for bus drivers ranges for $16.25 to $21.32 an hour. Driving is a part-time job with a maximum of 20 hours. While Barbour said First Student has a full complement of drivers to start the season, she is always looking for more, urging those interested to apply at FirstGroupCareers.com.
Still, there’s nothing that beats experience.

Speaking of Ellis Axelrod, who at 82 years old is the elder Warwick First Student driver, Barbour said, “I wish I could clone him."

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