Making a case for 18-year-old bus, motorcoach drivers

Because of our aging work force and the lure of high-tech jobs — coupled with a multitude of counter-productive restrictions and outdated mindsets — the transportation industry is experiencing an unnecessary critical shortage of next-generation driver applicants.

Why unnecessary?

Because we are thinking in a tight box and doing the same things over and over. We are looking under rocks for applicants, making compromises in our hiring criteria and relaxing our professional performance standards for current drivers who would have been terminated if a replacement were available.

Sound familiar?

So, thinking outside of the box is the most logical solution and it’s staring us right in the face: 18- to 20-year-olds, a long-overlooked source of labor.

That is the most logical answer, unless you are an insurance company.


Apples and oranges

Insurance companies tend to look at 18- to 20-year-olds and see high claims statistics. But that’s comparing apples and oranges. The youth demographic they are basing their restrictions on are the untrained and immature with little direction.

After all, the military has success with putting 18 year olds behind the wheels of a variety of vehicles, ships and aircraft.

They accomplish that by vetting and training their young recruits. And that is the same thing the bus industry can and should do.

In fact, it has been done and it was successful. I did it myself several years ago for a client in Maryland.

The owner of a midsized charter and tour bus company who was experiencing a high applicant rejection rate from the available work pool told me that he understood that 18-year-olds can drive charter buses in intrastate service. He had a 17-year-old employee working on the wash crew who he thought would be a great driver candidate when he turned 18 and wanted to hire him before he found another profession.

After an extensive interview and vetting, I agreed to start training the young man (I’ll call him Doug) in our four-week Professional Bus Driver Training Program, which includes classroom theory, driving range vehicle handling skills, behind-the-wheel defensive driving and accident avoidance training.

I then placed him with a carefully selected mentor for two weeks of in-service passenger training.


Success story

To make a long story short, Doug became a very reliable and successful incident- and accident-free in-state charter driver until he turned 21, when he was moved up to interstate status and continued to be an in-demand driver for the company’s long-distance multistate tours.

Doug continued his charter-bus career for several years until he was invited by Tommy Dorsey to become his full-time tour-bus driver, which he did for the next 10 years until he retired from the open road and became a successful car dealer in Florida.

The problem with the requirement that drivers be at least 21 is that by the time our young people reach that age they have been lured into other professions such as something they have been training for and exposed to all their lives – electronics.

So, as an industry we have a big job to do and that is to convince the insurance industry and ourselves that with proper vetting and training 18- to 20-year-olds should be considered as one of the solutions to replenishing the shrinking driver pool.

Currently, many organizations and employers such as those in the retail and health-care fields are investing in our nation’s youth. There also are youth organizations like the Explorer Scouts, public-service cadets, the Civil Air Patrol, the Experimental Aircraft Association, and the Air Force Combatives Program.

They all are preparing our young adults for careers in many fields, except transportation. Membership in these organizations could be a component in our vetting process.


Training is key

The most important element here is the training program, which must contain an approved curriculum and be conducted by experienced bus transportation training professionals.

Training cannot be conducted by a truck school, lead driver or management-appointed person for the simple reason that you don’t know what they don’t know, and that applies to most any driver in the industry who has not been professionally trained. Again, they don’t know what they don’t know.

The training curriculum for motorcoach operators must mirror the United Nations-sanctioned European “Certificate Of Proficiency” program, which all commercial drivers in Europe must obtain in order to travel inter-country.

The program is akin to obtaining a pilot’s license as it contains a lengthy ground school classroom training in theory, laws of motion, map reading and contingency planning, as well as many hours of behind-the wheel-vehicle handling and defensive driver training.

The certificate is good for five years, at which time a refresher course must be completed.

Contrast that with this country’s minimal qualification requirements of passing a CDL test with very little theory and a road test that many times is conducted in a school bus.

This was not the plan when Congress passed the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986. The original draft called for mandatory formal training for all new CDL applicants.


Political firestorm

However, loud cries of “foul” and extensive lobbying by our transportation industry resulted in a political firestorm that caused the training requirement to be dumped and the grandfather clause to be substituted.

Thousands of nonqualified drivers now had CDLs.

One other important factor in the shrinking driver pool is the lack of exposure to our industry by the nation’s youth.

Think about it. When is the last time you saw a movie or TV show or even a commercial that featured a bus or motorcoach? Even the Greyhound commercials are gone.

So what can we do as an industry and individual operators to get the exposure needed to get the attention of our nation and the public as a whole?

  • Do what other industries do. Hold an open house, put coaches on display, and have drivers talk up their jobs to generate interest.
  • Have drivers visit schools and give career talks to classes.
  • Get your buses into commercials. Talk to local TV stations about trading your bus for staff transport in return for on-air exposure, or pay for a short commercial.
  • Hire youth interns for the summer to expose them to our industry.

Eighteen- to 20-year-olds need to be attracted to the industry, and insurance company minimum age requirements for drivers need to be relaxed.

Bus company owners also need to be trained as to what really qualifies a driver to be called a professional because many bus people don’t know what they don’t know.

You can dress a person in a spiffy uniform and place him or her behind the wheel of a great looking, expensive commercial vehicle. But that doesn’t make him or her a professional driver.

In fact, I can say that in general many of our so-called professional drivers are aware that they are not fully trained professionals and some are aware that they don’t know what they don’t know.

They are thirsty for professional training, as I find when I hold in-service training classes. The students are still asking questions as I try to leave and they tell me they have a new sense of pride because they now have the knowledge to be truly professional and safe drivers.

Pierre Brenenstuhl is CEO of Prodrive Safety, which provides safety, training and support services to motorcoach operators and also conducts accident investigations. He can be reached at

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