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The Minneapolis school district has launched a new program to combat an acute bus-driver shortage, offering paid training, mentorship and career opportunities to entice job seekers.

With more than 34,000 students, the district has struggled to attract enough bus drivers, and officials hope their new driver-in-training program will help them solve a critical problem facing school districts nationwide.

The strong economy and a low unemployment rate, district leaders say, forced them to try a new recruiting and training effort to fill bus driver vacancies and stabilize school operations.

“This is our attempt to be creative to address a market condition that we don’t have control over and to get people on the bus before school starts,” said Candra Bennett, the district’s director of talent acquisition.

The district owns 170 buses, but it contracts with six different transportation providers to supply drivers and buses to help manage the driver shortage. With 120 bus drivers on staff, district leaders are looking to fill 45 positions — up from 26 in October.

The district announced the program at one of its job fairs in late June, offering a $15-an-hour wage for up to five weeks and help obtaining their commercial driver’s licenses.

Once hired in the district, bus drivers get union benefits such as paid holidays, paid sick leave, health insurance and a retirement plan, as well as a starting pay of $19 an hour.

District leaders said the total cost of the new initiative will depend on the number of people who participate and complete the program. So far, more than 19 candidates have been screened, with some likely to receive an offer from the district.

To make the start of the new school year even smoother, district officials plan to debut a bus-tracking mobile app called “Here Comes the Bus” in the fall to help parents track their kids’ transportation routes.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development has said that in addition to the tight labor market, an aging workforce has led to a smaller pool of school employee candidates in general — a nationwide problem.

Because of that, Bennett said it’s become more difficult to find new hires for hard-to-fill positions in the district, a situation that led to cancellations of some after-school activities in several Minneapolis schools last school year.

These days, Bennett and her team are working to create attractive programs that would give candidates on-the-job training, mentorship and livable wages, while teaching them how to move up in their careers within the school system. “Being a bus driver is a career, and there’s an absolute career path there,” Bennett said.

Job seekers who are interested in learning more about the program are encouraged to visit the district’s website at transportation.mpls.k12.mn.us/careers and fill out an application.

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203