Monday, July 11, 2022

‘Me? A school bus driver?’

Yes you, First Student says

By Tim Hadac
Managing Editor
Southwest Chicago Post

In a world where “Help Wanted” signs now outnumber “Wear a Mask” signs by about a thousand to one (or so it seems), employers across the board are scrambling to compete for prospective employees like never before.

Having a leg up on the competition are companies already known for good pay, flexible schedules and strong benefits—like First Student, widely known as one of North America’s leading school transportation providers in North America. Its yellow school buses are a fixture across the Chicago area.

“This is a very good place to work, no doubt,” said Andrew Zanoni Field Supervisor and Recruiting Team Leader at First Student’s terminal in Hodgkins. “We draw people from different age groups and different positions in life. We have a workforce that is diverse, capable and motivated.”

Zanoni himself is an example. He started with the company in 2017 as a college student (majoring in industrial design) seeking a part-time gig while he was away from school.

First Student attracts its share of college students, but also retirees and middle-aged folks seeking new employment because their companies downsized.

One of those people is Chicago Lawn resident Rita Bencomo, 51, who has been driving school buses for 20 years—the last 13 with First Student.

“Years ago, I was a stay-at-home mom with four kids who took the bus to school,” she said. “I got to know one of the drivers on our route. She was a nice person. One day she asked me, ‘Why don’t you drive a school bus?’ I had not thought about it; but then I did, so I thought I’d try it.”

These days during school years, the grandmother of 10 most frequently runs routes for Argo Community High School and Lyons Township High School, as well as Jefferson Middle School.

“I like working for First Student,” she said. “Getting kids to and from school safely is important, and I’m proud that I’m a part of that.”

Tinley Park resident Rosa Lanagan, 32, was a 21-year-old working at Menards when she a First Student recruiting sign.

“At first, I thought, ‘Me? A school bus driver?’ But I guess I’m a little adventurous, so I said, ‘Bring it’ and my friend and I decided to give it a try.”

Years later, Lanagan has succeeded and worked her way up into a First Student supervisor’s spot—training prospective drivers and helping with recruitment.

“It’s worked out well,” she said. “As a driver, you typically handle a few hours in the morning; then you’re off and come back for a few hours after school.

“But there are a lot of options to get just about as many more hours as you want, with all the charters we run in the evenings and on weekends—everything from taking athletic teams and school clubs to games, to school field trips, to summer camps outside the Chicago area, everything,” she continued. “It’s technically part-time employment, but you have the opportunity to make it into more than that. And you’re not your own boss actually, but once you’re behind the wheel, you feel like it, and that’s a good feeling.”

Zanoni said First Student offers paid training at $15 an hour, but then $21 an hour once employment starts—with a $5,000 sign-up bonus. He said First Student’s Hodgkins facility boasts a fleet of well-maintained buses, many of which are new.

A limited number of jobs are open now for drivers, dispatchers and more. For more information, visit and put your home ZIP code in the search engine.

According to a company statement, "First Student strives to provide the best start and finish to every school day. With a team of highly-trained drivers and the industry’s strongest safety record, First Student delivers reliable, quality services, including full-service transportation and management, special-needs transportation, route optimization, and scheduling, maintenance, and charter services with a fleet of about 40,000 buses. For more information, please visit"

Driving a bus not magical

But it feels that way, I learned

By Steve Metsch

En route to my debut driving a school bus, I got psyched up listening to “Magic Bus” by The Who.

“I don’t want to cause no fuss,” Roger Daltrey sang, “but can I buy your magic bus?”

I didn’t have $100,000 to buy a new yellow school bus.

But it does feel magical driving a 38-foot, 18,400-pound rig.

Alas, I was not allowed to drive the bus on local streets. Something about needing a permit.

But I did drive around the bus lot at First Student, 8600 W. 67th St. Hodgkins.

Driving a bus is fun. Power steering. Power brakes. Good acceleration. Seven mirrors. It’s a lot like my Hyundai Sonata, albeit nearly four times as long.

Yes, a bus is enormous.

Making a turn? Give yourself a wide berth. That’s easy in a parking lot.

I would need every minute of training - 13 classroom hours and 40 behind-the-wheel hours - to turn safely from Archer onto Narragansett, carting kids to Kennedy High School, for example.

My instructor was First Student Field Supervisor Andrew Zanoni. He’s again driving buses, as the company is a handful of drivers short of the 160 it needs for its 200-bus fleet.

Zanoni, 26, wonders if there’s a shortage—a national shortage across the industry, in fact--because people don’t like the hours. I joked that it’s because their buses don’t have air conditioning. (Actually, a number of them do.)

Seriously, if you need information about a school bus, Zanoni knows them inside out.

“Always check your mirrors. That’s one of the things you get good at driving a bus,” he said. “People don’t realize that a lot of times, a bus will handle as good as your car once you get comfortable navigating with the size.”

I felt comfortable behind the wheel. Keep in mind, there is a 5 mph speed limit in the lot and no traffic.

There’s plenty to remember driving a bus. Like when I wanted to stop and drop off our photographer.

“Put the bus into neutral, please,” Zanoni said. “Use your left foot to push the parking brake pedal to the floor. The door switch is the red one to the right of the gear shift.”

Why do school bus drivers open the door at railroad crossings? To listen for trains. There’s a laundry list of things to do at a bus stop.

Zanoni later had me back into a diagonal parking space using the mirrors. No flinging my right arm over the car seat and turning my head around as I have for decades.

I parked inside the lines. Did not hit another bus. “Great job,” he said. Maybe I found a new gig.

Potential drivers are paid $15 per hour for 40 hours of training, he said. If they feel they need more, they can have more. 

If hired, they earn $21 per hour for the 2022-23 school year.

You are guaranteed two hours in the morning, two in the afternoon, even if your route takes less time. There’s a chance to make more money on side jobs.

Zanoni, who has never had an accident and has driven a bus 75 mph on a highway, later took me on a brief tour of La Grange. I marveled at his driving skills on narrow streets.

Two motorists honked at us. How dare we stop a school bus at a railroad crossing? 

Even with jerks like that, Zanoni loves his job.

“The kids are usually really good,” he said. “If you lay out the rules on the first day, they’ll be angels the rest of the year.”

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