Back in July when my husband announced he was leaving his job, with no intention of working again, the pressure was on for me to get a job, and fast. I used to work in medical administration, and for the past year I had been applying for hospital, clinic, and private practice jobs, but hadn't secured anything. I'd been on interviews, negotiated over benefits and hours, but never found a job that fit. First, it was sobering to discover that the kind of work I did in 2002 was now paying less than what I made ten years ago. Then there was the trend toward making most employees part-time, "private contractors," or "at will" hires -- all to avoid having to provide healthcare, sick/holiday leave, and other benefits.
One job that always fascinated me was bus driving. I rode a lot of buses as a teen and in my 20's, and have a lot of respect for bus drivers. My brother works for Seattle's public transit provider, King County Metro, as a transit planner, so I come from a family of bus lovers. I have a neighbor who drives transit buses in the city, and she'd been trying to convince me to drive there, but I hesitated because when you first start you have to serve your time driving graveyard shift in the inner city. No thanks.
My daughter A started riding the school bus two years ago when she started middle school (before that we were able to walk to elementary). Her two drivers were exceptional and in May of this year I attended the regional "School Bus Roadeo" where the drivers made it look so easy, that I thought, maybe I should give it a try...
I applied to our local school district online on July 11th. I got a call that the people in transportation who would be doing the interviewing and training were on vacation until August, so I wouldn't hear anything until then.
The first week of August I had a phone interview. It went well and I was told to get a print-out of my driving record (totally clean!) from the DOL to bring to an interview.
The line at the DOL went all the way out into the parking lot. And this was at 10am on a weekday.
On Monday, August 12th I went to the transportation department for my interview. I was interviewed by two people, the director of safety and training, and a driver trainer. There were a series of "what would you do..." questions to assess my judgment, such as "two kids are throwing punches in the back of the bus, you are on a busy road in heavy traffic, and dispatch is calling you over the radio, what would you do first?"
The interview wrapped up and I felt pretty good about my answers to their tricky questions. I was told they'd call me in a few days after all the other applicants had been interviewed. We were making parting small talk when I mentioned how I was inspired by the skill of the district's drivers when I saw them compete at the School Bus Rodeo. Well, my interviewer's eyes lit up and she said she didn't usually do this during an interview, but she wasn't going to call me in a few days, because she wanted me to join the training class starting on Thursday. I was essentially hired on the spot, however technically I wouldn't be hired until after I completed the training and passed the state CDL test. I think what really made an impression was that after I'd attended the roadeo I burned disks of all the photos I took and sent them to transportation to share with the drivers I'd photographed. My interviewer said she remembered that generous gesture, but hadn't realized until now that I was the one who had done it. She said she knew my name was familiar, but couldn't place it before I mentioned attending the roadeo.
On Tuesday, August 13th I went to get my State certified CDL physical. I would also go for FBI fingerprinting and a background check. All costs associated with these checks and tests would be for me to bear. In all it would be a couple hundred dollars. Nothing was covered by the school district because I wasn't yet an employee. The training course provided by the district's transportation department was free, whereas many districts won't hire you unless you already have your CDL from attending a CDL school, which was costly. There was an upfront cost to getting hired, but I felt it was worth it.
On Thursday, August 15th I woke up and reported to "work," joining a training class of 5 women applicants, the youngest 38 years old, the oldest 61. The first day was overall orientation, going over all the school district employee policies (no drinking, no smoking on district property or within view of students, mandatory drug tests, ethics, privacy and confidentiality, reporting bullying and sexual harassment, legal obligations, etc.).
The next days we dove into the "book learning" for driving a school bus. We were given a fat binder and hours a day of reading outside of class. Who knew that there was so much more to becoming a bus driver than just learning to maneuver a giant vehicle? Over the next weeks we would learn everything from ALL (and there are many) of the regulations and laws pertaining to school bus drivers, to student management (drivers aren't allowed to "just drive," you have to prevent bullying and maintain discipline, too), to how the engine and all the other mechanical systems on the bus work. Then there would be a series of tests.
If you'd like to see the backbone of what was in our instructional binder, it's here online. There are blank pages in the PDF because individual districts are to add materials tailored to their own fleet of buses and district policies. The whole book, when filled with the district's additional pages, added up to several hundred pages.
Separate from the fat binder and the school district's training materials was the Washington State CDL instruction book, which we were to read, memorize, and be tested on at the DOL on our own time. I had to pass 4 different tests: General CDL, Passenger endorsement, School Bus endorsement, and Air Brake. The things you had to know, oh my! Dozens of numbers, fractions, and percentages measuring everything from alcoholic drinks affecting blood alcohol levels, to tire tread depth, to how many feet in which direction to place reflective triangles when you break down, to the range of normal PSI in the air brake tanks. Then there were all these new terms to learn and mechanical systems to understand!
Waiting to take my four tests at the DOL. I was fearful that I wouldn't remember all the facts and figures, or the correct terminology. My number finally called, I took a deep breath and asked to do all 4 tests, one after the other. I wanted to get it over with. The agent said most people fail the first time they take a test, and that I shouldn't be too upset if I fail given that I was taking 4 of them. The odds weren't good, I guess.
When I returned to the window to get my results the agent's eyes grew wide. Not only had a passed all the tests, but I scored 98%, 89%, 100%, and 100%. The agent said he'd see me back in a few weeks to apply for my drive test, and wished me well in my training.
To be continued...