Bus Driver Careers

Significant Points

  • Opportunities should be good, although applicants for higher paying public transit bus driver positions may encounter competition.
  • State and Federal governments establish bus driver qualifications and standards, which include a commercial driver's license.
  • Work schedules vary considerably among various types of bus drivers.
  • Bus drivers must possess strong customer service skills, including communication skills and the ability to manage large groups of people with varying needs.

Nature of the Work

Bus drivers provide transportation for millions of people, from commuters to school children to vacationers. There are two major kinds of bus drivers. Transit and intercity bus drivers transport people within or across States, along routes run within a metropolitan area or county, or on chartered excursions and tours. School bus drivers take children to and from schools and school-related activities.

Bus drivers pick up and drop off passengers at bus stops, stations, or-in the case of students-at regularly scheduled neighborhood locations and school, all according to strict time schedules. Drivers must operate vehicles safely, sometimes in heavy traffic. They also cannot let light traffic put them ahead of schedule so that they miss passengers. Bus drivers drive a range of vehicles from 15-passenger buses to 60-foot articulated buses that can carry more than 100 passengers.

Transit and intercity bus drivers can be further divided into those who work for local transportation agencies, those who drive on regularly scheduled intercity routes, and those who operate motor coaches. Both transit and regularly scheduled intercity service drivers begin a day's work at their garage or bus terminal. There, they may stock up on tickets or transfers and prepare trip reports before starting their first scheduled routes. In some transportation firms, maintenance departments are responsible for keeping vehicles in good condition; in others, drivers check their vehicles' tires, brakes, windshield wipers, lights, oil, fuel, and water supplies before beginning their routes. Drivers usually verify that buses have proper safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers, first aid kits, and emergency reflectors.

Local transit and intercity bus drivers collect fares; answer questions about schedules, routes, and transfer points; and sometimes announce stops. Intercity bus drivers may make only one to two stops between distant cities, or they may stop at towns just a few miles apart. Local transit bus drivers usually cover several routes each day over the same city and suburban streets, stopping as frequently as every few blocks or whenever passengers request stops.

Local transit bus drivers submit daily trip reports with a record of trips, significant schedule delays, and mechanical problems. Intercity drivers who drive across State or national boundaries must comply with U.S. Department of Transportation reporting regulations, including vehicle inspection reports, distances traveled and the time they spend driving.

Motor coach operators transport passengers on chartered trips and sightseeing tours. Whereas other bus drivers make predetermined stops on a schedule, these drivers work at the convenience of the groups they transport. Drivers routinely interact with customers and tour guides to make the trip as comfortable and informative as possible. They are directly responsible for making sure tours stay on-time and ensuring the overall success of each trip. These drivers act as customer service representatives, tour guides, program directors, and safety guides. Trips frequently last more than a day, so coach operators may spend extended periods away from home.

School bus drivers usually drive the same routes each day, stopping to pick up pupils in the morning and returning them to their homes in the afternoon. Some school bus drivers also transport students and teachers on field trips or to sporting events. In addition to driving, some school bus drivers work part time in the school system as janitors, mechanics, or classroom assistants, when not driving buses.

Bus drivers must be alert, especially in heavy traffic or in bad weather to prevent accidents, and to avoid sudden stops or swerves that jar passengers. School bus drivers must exercise particular caution when children are getting on or off the bus. They must maintain order on their bus and enforce school safety standards by allowing only students to board. In addition, they must know and enforce the school system's rules regarding student conduct. As the number of students with physical or behavioral disabilities increases, school bus drivers must learn how to accommodate their special needs.

Some school bus drivers can take their bus home or park it in a more convenient area, rather than reporting to an assigned terminal or garage. School bus drivers do not collect fares. Instead, they prepare weekly reports on the number of students, trips or "runs," work hours, miles, and fuel consumption. Their supervisors set time schedules and routes for the day or week.

Work environment. Driving a bus through heavy traffic while dealing with passengers is more stressful and fatiguing than physically strenuous. Many drivers enjoy the opportunity to work without direct supervision, with full responsibility for their bus and passengers. To improve working conditions and retain drivers, many bus lines provide ergonomically designed seats and controls for drivers.

Transit and intercity bus drivers are often at high risk, mainly because they work alone and some passengers may be dangerous. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that transit and intercity bus drivers experienced a work-related injury and illness rate that was higher than the national average. School bus drivers, in contrast, have an average rate of non-fatal occupational injuries comparable to all other occupations.

About 35 percent of all bus drivers worked part time in 2008. School bus drivers work only when schools are in session. Some work 20 hours a week or less, driving one or two routes in the morning and afternoon. Drivers taking field or athletic trips, or who also have midday kindergarten routes, may work more hours a week.

Regular local transit and intercity bus drivers usually have a 5 or 6 day workweek. They may have to work one or both weekend days on a regular basis. Some drivers work in the early morning, in the evening, or after midnight. To accommodate commuters, many work "split shifts"-for example, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., with time off in between. Depending on the length of their routes, intercity bus drivers may spend one or more nights away from home at a time. Others may make a round-trip (or several round-trips) during a single day and come home at the end of each shift.

Motor coach operators may work any day and all hours of the day, including weekends and holidays. Their hours are dictated by the destinations, schedules, and itineraries of chartered tours. Like all commercial drivers, their weekly hours must be consistent with the Department of Transportation's rules and regulations concerning hours of service and they are required to document their time in a logbook.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

State and Federal governments establish bus driver qualifications and standards, which include a commercial driver's license (CDL) with the proper endorsements. Many employers provide several weeks of training and help new employees obtain their CDL.

Education and training. Some employers prefer high school graduates and require a written test of ability to follow complex bus schedules, but the ability to drive and a clean license are usually more important.

Most companies give driver trainees 2 to 8 weeks of classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction. In the classroom, trainees learn Department of Transportation and company work rules, safety regulations, State and municipal driving regulations, and safe driving practices. They also learn to read schedules, determine fares, keep records, and deal courteously with passengers.

During training, all bus drivers practice driving on set courses. They practice turns and zigzag maneuvers, backing up, and driving in narrow lanes. Then, they drive in light traffic and, eventually, on congested highways and city streets. They also make trial runs without passengers to improve their driving skills and learn the routes. Local transit trainees memorize and drive each of the runs operating out of their assigned garage. New drivers make regularly scheduled trips with passengers, accompanied by an experienced driver who gives helpful tips, answers questions, and evaluates the new driver's performance. Most bus drivers get brief supplemental training periodically to stay informed of safety issues and regulatory changes.

Licensure. All bus drivers must obtain commercial driver's licenses (CDL) with the proper endorsements. Qualifications and standards for drivers are established by State and Federal regulations. Bus drivers are responsible for complying with regulations within their own States, as well as those of other States (or countries) where they operate.

To qualify for a commercial driver's license, applicants must pass a knowledge test on rules and regulations and then demonstrate in a skills test that they can operate a bus safely. The Department of Transportation keeps a national database of all driving violations incurred by CDL holders, and a State may not issue a license to a person who has already had a license suspended or revoked in another State. Drivers may only hold one license at a time, and must surrender all other driver's licenses upon receiving their new CDLs.

Bus drivers must also have passenger endorsements for their licenses. Transit, intercity, and motor coach operators must have a passenger vehicle (P) endorsement, while school bus drivers must have both a passenger (P) and a school bus (S) endorsement. Both of these endorsements require a passing score on knowledge and skills tests administered by the State licensing agency or partner institution. The knowledge test is a written exam that covers laws of the road, whereas the skills test is administered by a certified examiner in the appropriate commercial vehicle. Information on how to apply for a commercial driver's license and each type of endorsement can be obtained from State motor vehicle administrations and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Although many States allow those who are 18 years of age and older to drive buses within State borders, the U.S. Department of Transportation establishes minimum qualifications for bus drivers engaged in interstate commerce. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations require drivers to be at least 21 years old and to pass a physical examination once every 2 years. All drivers also must be able to read and speak English well enough to read road signs, prepare reports, and communicate with law enforcement officers and the public.

The main physical requirements include good hearing, at least 20/40 vision with or without glasses or corrective lenses, and a 70-degree field of vision in each eye. Drivers must also be able to distinguish the colors on a traffic light and hear a forced whisper in one ear at not less than 5 feet (with a hearing aid, if necessary). Drivers must have normal blood pressure and normal use of their arms and legs. They may not use any controlled substances, unless prescribed by a licensed physician. People with epilepsy or with diabetes controlled by insulin are not permitted to be interstate bus drivers.

Federal regulations also require employers to test their drivers for alcohol and drug use as a condition of employment and require periodic random tests of the drivers while they are on duty. In addition, a driver must not have been convicted of a felony involving the use of a motor vehicle or a crime involving drugs, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, refusing to submit to an alcohol test required by a State or its implied consent laws or regulations, leaving the scene of a crime, or causing a fatality through negligent operation of a commercial vehicle.

Other qualifications. Many employers prefer applicants who are at least 24 years old. Because bus drivers deal with passengers, they must be courteous. They need an even temperament and emotional stability because driving in heavy, fast-moving, or stop-and-go traffic and dealing with passengers can be stressful. Drivers must have strong customer service skills, including communication skills and the ability to coordinate and manage large groups of people. In some States, school bus drivers must pass a background investigation to uncover any criminal record or history of mental problems.

Advancement. New intercity and local transit drivers usually are placed on an "extra" list to drive chartered runs, extra buses on regular runs, and special runs, such as those during morning and evening rush hours and to sports events. New drivers also substitute for regular drivers who are ill or on vacation. New drivers remain on the extra list and may work only part time, perhaps for several years, until they have enough seniority to get a regular run.

Senior drivers may bid for the runs that they prefer, such as those with more work hours, lighter traffic, weekends off, or-in the case of intercity bus drivers-higher earnings or fewer workdays per week.

Opportunities for promotion are generally limited, but experienced drivers may become supervisors or dispatchers. In transit agencies with rail systems, drivers may become train operators or station attendants. Some bus drivers become either instructors of new bus drivers or master-instructors, who train new instructors. Few drivers become managers. Promotion in publicly owned bus systems is often determined by competitive civil service examination. Some motor coach drivers purchase their own equipment and open their own business.

Job Outlook

Bus drivers should expect average job growth and good employment opportunities. Those seeking higher paying public transit bus driver positions may encounter competition. Individuals who have clean driving records and who are willing to work part-time or irregular schedules will have the best job prospects.

Employment change. Overall employment of bus drivers is expected to grow by 7 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. This growth will be spread among the various occupational specialties.

Employment growth for local transit and intercity bus drivers is projected to be 8 percent over the 2008-18 decade, about as fast as the average for all occupations, mainly as a result of a changing attitude toward public transit in the U.S. High gas prices in recent years have convinced many people to use public transportation. At the same time, public transportation is seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to driving. As a result, many State and local governments have increased funding for public transportation. This trend is expected to continue, and will lead to incrementally higher employment of transit bus drivers over the course of the projections decade. At the same time, however, inexpensive airline tickets and competition from train services will limit the growth of intercity bus travel.

Employment of school bus drivers is expected to grow by 6 percent over the 2008-18 decade, which is slower than the average for all occupations. The growth that does occur will be in response to an increase in the number of school-age children in the U.S. While enrollment continues to increase, however, growth will be tempered by budget cuts by local school districts, which has led to service reductions and greater emphasis on route efficiency.

Job prospects. People seeking jobs as bus drivers likely will have good opportunities. New jobs will be created, but most job openings are expected because of the need to replace workers who take jobs in other occupations or retire. School bus driving jobs, particularly in rapidly growing suburban areas, should be plentiful because most are part-time positions with high turnover. Those seeking higher paying public transit bus driver positions may encounter competition.

Individuals who have clean driving records and who are willing to work a part-time or irregular schedule probably will have the best job prospects. Opportunities for intercity driving positions should be good, although employment prospects for motor coach drivers will depend on tourism, which fluctuates with the economy.

Full-time bus drivers rarely are laid off during recessions, but competition for jobs increases significantly during periods of high unemployment. The majority of workers in this occupation are employed by local governments and schools. The number of students who need transportation to school does not change during times of economic distress, and mass transit ridership often goes up. However, during recessions, when workers in other industries lose their jobs, many try to become bus drivers, as it is a relatively high-paying job given that it requires so little training. As a result, people who want to become bus drivers during such times may face keen competition for jobs. In contrast, during times when unemployment is low, employers may have difficulty attracting enough people to this occupation.