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High training costs, low pay contributing to Alberta school bus driver 'catastrophe': expert

The lack of school bus drivers in Alberta and the high costs of mandatory training contributes to kids getting to class late or missing out on it entirely, says the organization representing Alberta school bus contractors.

The Alberta School Bus Contractors' Association (ASBCA) says there are fewer buses available to ferry kids to school and home every day as the industry grapples with driver shortages.

Mark Critch, ASBCA president, told CTV News Edmonton that certain regions of the province are seeing up to 30 per cent fewer drivers than required.

"We are getting numbers in the hundreds, certain areas of the province are 28 to 38 per cent short on drivers," Critch said. "We are concerned with the cold weather coming that it will get worse."

While driver shortages can be mitigated in the cities, Critch says that can become impossible in some rural areas.

"The geography doesn't work," he said. "If you're in the city, you can double up or even triple up, in some cases. So kids get to school, they're late, but they get to school.

"In rural Alberta, it's a lot more difficult," he added. "So we have contractors that are pulling everyone out of their office, out of their shops to drive buses just to make sure kids get to school."

For some parents, a missed bus means rearranging their schedules to drop off their kids, while others may not have such a luxury.

When school bus drivers have to double up on a route, that can mean kids still get to school but are anywhere from 30 minutes to hours late, Critch explained.

"If you are in the city and you say, OK, my kids are still getting a ride on the bus, but they're 30 minutes late on average," Critch says, "that's 30 minutes times 40 kids times 200 buses, and you see the math.

"That's 240,000 minutes of instructional time lost," he shared. "And that's ongoing, on a daily basis most times… We've got kids not getting a proper education coming out of two years of not getting a proper education."

The ASBCA says 146,000 school-aged children take a school bus to get to class every day.


Critch says the largest hindrance in recruiting new school bus drivers is the steep cost of mandatory training.

The province created the Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) system in 2019 with the aim of producing more skilled drivers ready to work in the truck and bus industries. 

To be a school bus driver, a candidate must complete the MELT program to achieve their Class 2 driver's licence, which takes around 50 hours, including 18 hours of classroom instruction, 22 hours of practical and another 11 hours of in-yard training.

Many drivers need further training to receive their Q-endorsement, to operate a vehicle with an air brake system.

In Alberta, training costs are capped at no more than $5,000 for the MELT Class 2 program. In addition, drivers have to pass a Class 2 driver's knowledge test and road test.

While the training is important for new drivers, Critch says the high cost of entry and the three to five weeks it takes to complete all the requirements is unpaid time, keeps many prospective candidates out of the driver's seat.

"We've asked for some help with that," he said. "Ever since this MELT program came into effect in 2019, we've raised alarm bells."

"They're not coming in for training because they can't sit there unpaid for that amount of time."


Another hurdle drivers are facing is waiting for licence applications to be processed or to book a road test, Critch says.

"A week waiting for paperwork to be processed, that's one week that a driver could be sitting in the seat of that bus getting kids to school on time," Critch added. "That's lots of minutes lost for kids in school."

Earlier this year, the province provided a $30 million boost to a grant program supporting truck drivers taking the Class 1 MELT program. Critch wants Class 2 drivers to be able to apply for that grant to offset some of the costs of their mandatory training.

"There are simple solutions to this," Critch said. "We need to offer them better pay, better perks. We have to offset some of the costs of training. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen."

"We'd like dialogue (with the province) immediately to fix this issue and work toward a solution," he added.

Kevin Lee, assistant to Transportation Minister Devin Dreeshen, told CTV News Edmonton the province "understands" bus companies are facing driver shortages, and that's why the ministry allowed school bus providers to become licenced training providers to their staff to reduce or recoup costs and offer their own driver exams.

As of March, there were 18,414 drivers in the province licenced to drive a school bus and 5,454 registered school buses. Lee adds there are now 3,401 more drivers licenced to drive a school bus than in 2018.

"Our government is looking into innovative solutions to further grow the interest in Albertans pursuing a Class 2 licence and to attract drivers who are licenced and not driving to return to the roads," Lee added in follow-up statement Thursday evening.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Evan Kenny Top Stories

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