Worcester Public Schools’ (WPS) Night Life Continuing Education program is partnering with other community organizations to recruit, train, and employ bus drivers for the district, as the profession has been short on workers since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s so great all of the people we’ve been getting to apply because it’s just so very needed,” said Ruth Seward, Night Life director. “We still have a lot of spots to fill.”
The national labor shortage has taken a toll on transit systems both nationally and locally within the City of Worcester. The gap between available jobs and people to fill them has led MassHire Central Career Center to act.
“It was kind of a no-brainer for us, saying ‘let’s figure out how to make this happen,’” said Jeff Turgeon, executive director of MassHire Central Career Center. According to him, MassHire is fully funding the training course for Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Permits.
MassHire Central Region Workforce Board houses the Worcester Jobs Fund (WJF), which is guided by a committee consisting of representatives from other workforce partners at the MassHire Central Career Centers, Worcester Community Labor Coalition, the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Worcester Public Schools.
The Jobs Fund was created to pave way for viable long-term careers where there is an immediate need within the workforce. The program, which currently receives an annual City of Worcester tax levy appropriation of $200,000, supports job training, recruitment, and other related services.
“The mission of that program is to facilitate getting Worcester residents into good-paying jobs,” Mr. Turgeon said. “The Worcester Jobs Fund exists so that we see a great opportunity for people to move their life in a direction toward good-paying jobs with just a bit of training. The City’s going to use the Jobs Fund to help them, and it’s also going to help the schools that have a large demand [for bus drivers].”
The Jobs Fund has offered programs like Worcester Building Pathways pre-apprenticeship training, mobile EKG and phlebotomy technician training, and advanced manufacturing training. To participate in the WJF, individuals must be a resident of the City of Worcester, eligible for an income, and over the age of 18. Given the shortage of bus drivers, this CDL Permit program was a natural fit for WJF to offer.
Night Life, which allows lifelong learners the opportunity to develop more skills and knowledge both for employment purposes as well as enjoyment, also currently offers the chance for students to earn their CDL Permit. The course, which is offered at Worcester Technical High School, is held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
“There’s a huge need for this sort of employment,” Seward said. “I’ve done a lot of community organizing […] This is just another example of how people of Worcester just want to see things get done. We reduced all the barriers we could to get this program up and running.”
The CDL Permit course was started by Seward’s predecessor prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic’s onset brought it to a halt.
“What she [the predecessor] couldn’t predict and what we didn’t know was that there would be such an extreme shortage of bus drivers,” Ms. Seward said. “And in addition to that, Worcester Public Schools would be tasked to essentially create their own busing and transportation department and provide all of the busing rather than contract it out.”
Night Life’s program allows for what Ms. Seward calls a “streamlined process.” Students receive their permit and then continue with the Worcester Public Schools transportation department. Kathy Everett, the assistant transportation coordinator at Worcester Public Schools, is the same trainer and instructor throughout both entities, according to Ms. Seward.
“This way it makes it very easy for the candidates,” Ms. Seward said. “Worcester Public Schools needs to hire, I think, around 200 bus drivers.”
The course is currently in its third cohort of students, with about 15 people in class. So far, around 30 people have completed the course and worked to receive their Class A CDL Permit as well as both the passenger and air brakes endorsements. Night Life also provides the students 40 hours of instruction and the required 80 hours of road and field maneuvers.
MassHire helps with pre-screening to ensure that the candidates are Worcester residents and have a valid driver’s license plus a high school degree or equivalent education. The Adult Education Center also supports those who would like their CDL Permit but need to receive a high school education first or take an English as a Second Language (ESL) course.
“They have been a very valuable background resource,” Ms. Seward said of the Adult Education Center. “They have been very helpful as well.”
Although applicants may apply for a CDL beginning at the age of 18, federal regulations state that a license holder must be 21 years old to drive a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce. Any CDL holders in Massachusetts under the age of 21 will be issued a restricted license.
“That shortage that exists was really limiting Worcester Public Schools’ ability to operate,” Mr. Turgeon said.
To Ms. Seward, though, the course is beneficial not only for the schools, but also for parents seeking employment.
“They pay well and the schedules at Worcester Public Schools are very good,” Ms. Seward said. “You can really do [financially] well annually, but it’s also the type of schedule that fits into a parent’s schedule.” She also added that candidates do not need to be computer literate or have knowledge in a specific field like some of the other permits that Night Life courses may entail. To gain a CDL Permit, potential candidates simply need to know how to drive and work well with kids.
According to Mr. Turgeon, the students who went through the initial cohorts are already working with the Worcester Public Schools—and the mission and courses have “caught on,” in other cities across the Commonwealth. And, he doesn’t see the program stopping at any point in the near future.
“As long as they have a need to fill these drivers, we would love to keep supporting them and the classes,” Mr. Turgeon said. “I would say we will have at least one more cycle if not more than that.”
Monica Sager is a correspondent for the Worcester Chamber. The Chamber Exchange editorial team can be reached by email here.
This story was originally published in the February 2022 edition of Chamber Exchange: The Newspaper, a quarterly publication of the Chamber. All newspaper editions are archived here.