North Dakota Seeks CDL Shortcuts to Remedy Bus Driver Shortage

State DOT says ‘under the hood’ waivers aren’t a good idea for solving the driver shortage.

This is a photo of a school bus driving on the road.
School buses head toward the transportation center for the West Fargo School District, which has struggled to retain drivers. (Jeff Beach/North Dakota Monitor)

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Rep. Pat Heinert says North Dakota should think about throwing some federal driver’s licensing requirements under the bus.

“I’ve come up with the wild idea of creating a bus driver’s license for North Dakota,” Heinert said during a school funding committee meeting on Nov. 28.

Maybe it’s not so crazy. Maybe it is.

Mike Heilman, executive director of the North Dakota Small Organized Schools, said his group and others have been looking into waivers for parts of the federal commercial driver’s license requirements that bus drivers are required to have.

Specifically, the state may be able to waive the “under-the-hood” requirement as part of the CDL training.

“There are several states that have an under-the-hood exemption,” Heilman told the committee on Nov. 28.

Part of the pre-bus inspection requires knowing how to spot potential problems with the engine.

“The mechanic needs to know this but not necessarily the bus driver,” Heilman said.

Brad Schaffer, driver license director for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, says that yes, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which sets the rules for CDL requirements, does allow states to grant the “under the hood” exemption. But he said his department has decided against the move.

He said that someone obtaining a Class B CDL with the waiver would limit their driving:

They would only be able to drive a school bus, preventing them from driving a bus for another purpose, such as for a church group.It would mean they couldn’t drive across state lines.

He said there also is a possibility that the federal agency could decide to discontinue the waivers, forcing drivers to start over.

Schaffer said his department looked at other states that offer under-the-hood waiver and didn’t see much benefit.

Schaffer said the department can grant individual requests for under-the-hood waivers, but when potential CDL drivers learn about the restrictions, they back off. The department has not issued any such waivers this year.

He also said he didn’t think there would be a significant time savings on training with the waiver.

Other options?

Could there be other ways to create a light version of the CDL?

Levi Bachmeier, business manager for West Fargo Public Schools and a former policy adviser to Gov. Doug Burgum, said ideas are worth exploring.

A school bus on a West Fargo street
A school bus rolls down a street in West Fargo. School districts across the state have been struggling to fill bus driver positions. (Jeff Beach/North Dakota Monitor)
“Having gone through the process myself to get a school bus CDL permit, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make you a better driver or a safer driver,” Bachmeier told the committee.

Making it easier to get a CDL is one strategy to address the bus driver shortage in North Dakota and around the country.

A national survey on school busing released in 2021 showed 51% of respondents described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate;” and 78% indicated that the driver shortage is getting “much worse” or “a little worse.”

That has forced school districts to rethink transportation routes and services.

Alexis Baxley, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, said districts of all sizes are struggling to fill driving spots.

In Bismarck, she said drivers are having to drive two routes. The Northern Cass School District had to temporarily drop rural service this fall, offering only in-town pickup.

Other options include dropping door-to-door service, instead creating bus stops, and running longer routes. Baxley said longer routes can be especially hard on young students.

“Getting them to school is the most important thing,” Baxley said.

She said her group and the Small Organized Schools want to gather data.

“In order to identify a solution, we feel that we need to dig in and get some really hard data, something more than anecdotal, and see if we can really identify perhaps the biggest barriers to recruitment or the biggest barriers in the licensure process,” Baxley said.

Added safety requirement, fewer tests

The feds in February actually added a safety training requirement, though Schaffer said anyone who has held a CDL for two or more years qualifies as a trainer, and there is no time requirement.

Still, North Dakota has administered fewer CDL tests in 2023 than in years past.

As of Dec. 5, the state had given about 2,000 CDLs, on pace for between 2,200 and 2,300 for the year.

That’s behind 2022’s 3,000 tests and 2,700 in 2021.

Competition with industry

Bachmeier said West Fargo has covered most of the cost for drivers to obtain a CDL but that has been abused by drivers leaving for higher-paying jobs in private industry.

A sign advertising for drivers and workers in West Fargo. (Jeff Beach/North Dakota Monitor)
“People have figured out that if you go to your local school district, pay your $20 — or in our case, come to West Fargo, sit in our training room, go through your hours, use taxpayer funded equipment and then go drive a beet truck come harvest,” he said. “We’ve enjoyed your services for all of two months and now you are no longer employed with us but you have a CDL that was paid for by the taxpayers of West Fargo and the state of North Dakota.”

Heinert, a Republican from Bismarck and a former sheriff, admitted that a North Dakota-specific license may not be practical with the federal regulations that exist.

But Bachmeier agreed with Heinert that a lower training standard would help address the problem.

“If we can find a way to lower the training barriers, we can find a way to lower our competition with private providers that are always going to always out-compete us on a wage perspective, we may be able to affect some of the supply and demand issues that we have with bus drivers.”

North Dakota Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. North Dakota Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Amy Dalrymple for questions: info@northdakotamonitor.com. Follow North Dakota Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

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