Neal St. Anthony
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School bus driver Pat Regan begins his St. Paul route about 6:30 a.m. daily.

He picks up kids in Frogtown, the East Side and Como-Dale neighborhoods and delivers them to three schools over about three hours.

"I get to know the kids,'' he said. "And I meet the parents who count on us."

That means during the pandemic when drivers were delivering food and supplies to students at home.

"Growing up, the bus drivers were my heroes," Regan, 62, said in his office one morning last week after finishing his route and starting his full-time job.

Regan isn't just a part-time driver. He owns the bus company.

Regan is the president of Hastings-based Minnesota Coaches and owner of several affiliated bus companies across the state.

He's driving largely because there aren't enough drivers for part-time jobs, which can pay up to $25 an hour.

Similarly, many other full-time employees at the office have been pressed into route work. A deputy general counsel is working as an aide on buses that transport special-education kids.

Regan, whose late father founded the company in 1959, said directly serving the customers is a welcome responsibility.

"If we're more than 10 minutes late without good reason, we get fined," he noted. "And it's great to see at every school there's teachers and principals who welcome students as they leave the bus. It's an avocation for me."

Regan, whose companies employ up to 2,000 people from La Crescent to Fergus Falls, also needs a couple hundred part-time drivers onboard by mid-August to match the demand for buses as students return to schools full-time as the COVID-19 outbreak is contained.

Minnesota Coaches is offering drivers bonuses of up to $2,000 tied to retention.

"We're in a driver shortage crisis," Regan said. "It was here before the pandemic, but it's been exacerbated by the pandemic."

There has been a driver shortage in the Minnesota school-bus industry since last August, as schools returned to classes on a district-by-district basis. And as the economy rebounds, job-hungry companies are raising wages to lure workers.

Crisp & Green, the Twin Cities-based casual restaurant chain, is trying to hire 1,000 people, from manager jobs that can pay $100,000 to entry-level jobs that average $15 an hour, plus certain benefits and referral bonuses for employees who recruit new hires.

The biggest competition in the job market appears to be lingering concerns about the pandemic, and state unemployment checks that include the $300 weekly federal supplemental payments. That bonus will expire in September.

There's anecdotal evidence that base wages are heading quickly to $15 an hour or more to attract new and veteran workers across the Twin Cities, particularly in the hospitality and travel trade, hardest hit during the 2020-21 pandemic.

An April survey of regional business by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis indicated overall wage growth is up 3% over the last year. Ron Wirtz, regional outreach director at the Fed, told the Star Tribune earlier this month that wages are surging by more in construction, travel, entertainment and hospitality.

"And there may be some situations where [employers] are going to have to pay higher because maybe they weren't particularly good-paying to begin with," Wirtz said.

This is a good thing, particularly at the lower-end of the wage scale that has lost ground against inflation over the last 40 years.

Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari told National Public Radio recently that the recovery is still in a "deep hole" with 8 million to 10 million Americans still out of work.

And why aren't those part-time bus drivers and restaurant workers, many with kids still at home and without day care or summer programs, applying for jobs yet?

"Child care issues because schools are still not fully reopened," Kashkari said. "People are still nervous about the pandemic. And I do think the enhanced unemployment benefits are having some effect.

"The good news is all three of those factors should get a lot better in a few months when schools fully reopen, hopefully around Labor Day, if the virus continues to decline and those unemployment benefits expire. I'm optimistic we will see a lot more labor supply, people coming off the sidelines, beginning this fall."

Regan, an empathetic capitalist,knows many of the working-poor families whose children he transports. He doesn't blame parents for staying home with kids during the pandemic. And he's looking to hire and train as folks return to the job market.