Joy Hurley worked in an office for seven years and “hated it.” Her best friend convinced her to switch gears and give a new career a whirl—as a school bus driver.
“I tried it and love it,” said Hurley, of Carlisle. “There are so many things to love about it. I love all my kids—they make my day—and I love the freedom of being outside of an office.”
Nearly five years after getting behind the wheel, Hurley is still driving a school bus, plus she’s added two more responsibilities—training new drivers and inspecting buses as a safety supervisor.
And she’s exactly the kind of employee that Rohrer Bus hopes to attract more of, this summer.
The sunshine, on a recent Saturday morning, matched the traditional color of the bright yellow school buses lined up, waiting for drivers to take them for a spin, at three Harrisburg area school districts. They were “Test Drive a School Bus” events held by Rohrer Bus. Anybody could stop by and give it a try.
One of those people was Corey Mull, 27, of Mechanicsburg, a FedEx driver of three years.
“I’ve driven everything but a bus, so I figured why not try?” Mull said. “I enjoy driving because it’s an escape—and it keeps my mind focused on one thing.”
With Hurley seated behind him for a brief overview, Mull slid behind the wheel, tested the bus’s emergency flashing lights, crossing arm and stop sign, and then he was off for a few loops around the parking lot. After successfully backing up, parking the bus and chatting with Rohrer supervisors, he ultimately told them, “Thank you for the experience.” But Hurley and her colleagues hope they’ve planted a seed for a future employee.
That’s because Rohrer, like many school bus companies around the country, is facing a shortage of drivers. The issue, which existed prior to 2020, was exacerbated by the pandemic.
“A lot of our base is retirees and young parents, and both of those groups have been afraid of the virus,” said Katie Bowers, assistant supervisor of Rohrer’s 40 to 50 bus drivers for the Cumberland Valley School District. She describes the past school year as “challenging.”
“Because we’re already short on drivers, if you’re not feeling well, that puts us even shorter,” said Bowers. “So, it really brought teamwork to a different level, trying to figure out who can pick up the kids… especially with changing school schedules.”
It’s not a long-term solution, but one of the ways Rohrer has scrambled to fill bus routes is with the company executives themselves acting as substitute drivers.
“Last week, I probably drove at least six different routes,” said David Schrantz, Rohrer vice president, representing the fourth generation of the family-owned business. “One driver was out because they had surgery, and I saw his laminated directions with notes on every student—he took the time to leave them. Those are the little things that show me drivers care about doing a good job.”
Rohrer, based in Duncannon, is the largest employer in Perry County with about 1,000 employees and a fleet of about 1,000 Rohrer school buses. They provide transportation to about 50,000 students across 24 school districts in 14 counties including Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Perry and York. Only two or three school bus companies in the state are larger.
But the current driver shortage is one of the largest issues Rohrer has faced in its 100-year history, coincidentally being marked this year.
“My grandfather farmed—that’s how a lot of school bus companies got started, in rural parts of the country,” said Howard “Skip” Rohrer III. “He started with a horse and buggy transporting students into a one-room schoolhouse. Then he bought a chassis from Governor Pinchot and had a carpenter in Harrisburg build a body with bench seats and transformed it into a motor coach.”
By 1967, Rohrer operated 15 buses, and, by 1975, they diversified and became a school bus dealership, as well.
“I can remember, from the time I was 5 years old, coming out every summer, to clean and wax school buses—that was my life,” Skip said.
He, along with brother-in-law and Rohrer co-president John Schrantz, grew the school bus contracting side of the business from 1982 to its current level.
“Now, we’re trying to do creative things to attract applicants… because it takes about six weeks to get drivers through the [training and certification] process,” John said.
One of those creative strategies includes the “Test Drive a School Bus” events, in preparation for the new school year. Another creative strategy? Shirts, bearing the slogan, “Community Hero,” worn by the events’ drivers and instructors.
Fears can also put the brakes on potential drivers.
“It might be overwhelming for some people to think about handling kids on a bus, but once they build relationships with those students, it turns around,” Skip said.
Others are afraid of driving school buses due to their size, but David points out they’re the safest vehicle, structurally, and in terms of safety records, on the road.
David, who represents the future of the company, said he’s trying to maintain an optimistic outlook about the driver shortage.
“It’s getting hard—I’ve got to be frank with you. It’s the biggest problem I’ve focused my attention on for five years, and it’s nationwide,” he said. “But I’m optimistic for our industry. People from all walks of life can make this a good fit for them—young parents, especially mothers… people in between jobs, and it’s a great job for a retiree. Being a bus driver helps them get up in the morning, and it keeps them young.”
For more information on Rohrer Bus, see rohrerbus.com. The next “Test Drive a School Bus” event is set for June 26, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Lower Dauphin Middle School, East Pennsboro and Cumberland Valley High Schools.
Support quality local journalism. Become a Friend of TheBurg!