PORTLAND, Maine — School districts throughout Maine are struggling to find school bus drivers, a challenge made worse by low unemployment and a strong economy.
The problem is so worrisome it has some districts taking a closer look at it's hiring process. Portland was one of those cities.
Last year Portland was down 5 drivers, leaving Portland Transportation Director Eric Wood to sometimes have to hire contracted buses-- which gets expensive.
"I think oftentimes transportation is a lot like duct tape. We're trying to strap it all together and it doesn't always work well".
So Wood, along with city officials worked together to come up with a better plan.
"One of the biggest things was to make it a career."
They did this by increasing hours from 20 to 30 hours a week to 40 hours. And raising the starting pay from $15.50 to $18.27 dollars an hour.
"How can we help people who are young looking for a flexible job that gives them benefits and also gives them the ability to invest in the city and have a career?"
And the city is investing in its drivers by offering incentives and rewards.
"(It's) not just saying we value you, but doing things that imply and give substance to that statement."
Lisa Martel has been driving a school bus for 23 years, 6 of those years for Portland. When you ask her why she loves it, she doesn't hesitate to answer.
"The kids, they're sweet...at certain ages," She says with a laugh.
Martel believes school bus drivers have one of the most important jobs in a school district.
"We're talking safety of kids. And it's like an obstacle course out there every day. You have to know how to handle a big vehicle with 70 kids behind you. It's multitasking."
Martel knows driving a school bus is not for everyone, but for her, it's rewarding and always memorable.
"You kind of have to do everything, you've got to wipe their noses and hug them if they cry, it's more than just driving a bus, it encompasses a lot of things."
Portland's new efforts have worked. Portland doesn't have a bus driver shortage. But city officials know that can change quickly, particularly with upcoming retirements.
"It's a competitive league out there, people are trying to fill the gaps." Wood says.
The city of Portland has 50 bus drivers and transports more than two-thousand students a day.