North Dakota Aims to Find CDL Shortcuts to Resolve Bus Driver Shortage

Rep. Pat Heinert suggests that North Dakota should reconsider certain federal driver’s licensing requirements.

During a school funding committee meeting on Nov. 28, Heinert proposed the idea of creating a separate bus driver’s license for North Dakota.

Perhaps this idea isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.

According to Mike Heilman, executive director of the North Dakota Small Organized Schools, his organization and others have been exploring the possibility of obtaining waivers for specific parts of the federal commercial driver’s license (CDL) requirements for bus drivers.

In particular, they are looking into waiving the “under-the-hood” requirement as part of CDL training.

“Several states have an under-the-hood exemption,” Heilman informed the committee.

He explained that while mechanics need to know how to identify potential engine problems during the pre-bus inspection, this may not be necessary for the bus drivers themselves.

Brad Schaffer, driver license director for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, confirmed that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration allows states to grant the “under-the-hood” exemption. However, the department has decided against implementing this waiver.

A Class B CDL with the exemption would restrict drivers to school bus operations only, preventing them from driving buses for other purposes or crossing state lines.

Schaffer also noted the possibility that the federal agency could eliminate the exemption in the future, resulting in drivers having to start the process over again.

Although other states offer the under-the-hood waiver, Schaffer stated that his department did not see significant benefits from it.

While individual requests for the waiver can be granted on a case-by-case basis, Schaffer mentioned that potential CDL drivers often back off after learning about the restrictions. Therefore, no waivers have been issued this year.

Additionally, he didn’t believe that the waiver would save a significant amount of training time.

Exploring other options

Is there a possibility of creating a lighter version of the CDL?

Levi Bachmeier, business manager for West Fargo Public Schools, and former policy adviser to Gov. Doug Burgum, believes it’s worth investigating.

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 or safer driver,” Bachmeier expressed to the committee.

Easing the process of obtaining a CDL is one strategy to address the bus driver shortage in North Dakota and nationwide.

A national survey on school busing conducted in 2021 revealed that 51% of respondents described their driver shortage as either “severe” or “desperate.” Furthermore, 78% indicated that the shortage was getting “much worse” or “a little worse.”

Consequently, school districts have been forced to reconsider their transportation routes and services.

Alexis Baxley, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, stated that districts of all sizes are struggling to find enough drivers.

For example, in Bismarck, drivers are having to cover two routes, while the Northern Cass School District had to suspend rural service temporarily and only offer in-town pickup.

Alternative options include eliminating door-to-door service, establishing bus stops, and running longer routes. However, longer routes can be challenging, especially for younger students.

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

She added that her organization and the Small Organized Schools are interested in gathering data to identify the biggest recruitment and licensure barriers.

Additional safety requirement, fewer tests

Earlier this year, the federal government implemented a safety training requirement. However, Schaffer pointed out that anyone with a CDL for two or more years can serve as a trainer, with no time requirement.

Nonetheless, North Dakota has conducted fewer CDL tests in 2023 compared to previous years.

As of Dec. 5, the state had administered around 2,000 CDLs, projected to reach between 2,200 and 2,300 by year-end.

This figure falls below the 3,000 tests conducted in 2022 and the 2,700 in 2021.

Competition with the industry

Bachmeier revealed that West Fargo has covered most of the costs for drivers to obtain a CDL. However, this has sometimes been taken advantage of by drivers who leave for higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

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. 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,” Bachmeier explained.

Heinert, a Republican from Bismarck and a former sheriff, admitted that having a North Dakota-specific license may not be practical given existing federal regulations.

Nevertheless, Bachmeier agreed with Heinert that lowering the training standards could help address the problem.

“If we can find a way to reduce the training barriers and minimize competition with private providers who will always surpass us in terms of wages, we may be able to alleviate some of the supply and demand issues with bus drivers,” Bachmeier suggested.