By Phillip Haldaman, Transportation Coordinator
Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District
Hardly a week goes by that we’re not made aware of the many challenges employers face in the transportation industry in general, and school districts in particular relative to hiring and retaining CDL-qualified drivers. For school bus drivers, these shortages remain critical across the country.
Four years ago, an editorial in the Washington Post lamented a nationwide shortage of just truckers – over 51,000 of them – even back then. School bus driver shortages weren’t far behind. Statistics for this year are virtually unchanged. If anything, they’ve been made worse by the pandemic. In fact, nine states have deployed National Guard troops to fill empty school bus cockpits just to get kids to and from school.
Commenting on the severity of the nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, Curt Macysyn, Executive Director of the National School Transportation Association, said, “No doubt it’s a national problem, similar to what we see in service industries as well.” The challenge is: what are we going to do about it?
To stem the hemorrhaging of qualified help, many districts have deployed a number of great ideas to retain their existing drivers by offering higher wages, enhanced benefits, recruitment incentives, and sign-on bonuses.
While districts which can afford these extra incentives may enjoy some success attracting and retaining qualified drivers, the first and oldest intermediate school district in the state of Michigan – Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District – is trying something new: cutting edge technology.
Enter the EF-Truck/Bus Simulator System from Simulator Systems International. It was delivered to the Boyne City location of Char-Em ISD in late December 2021.
A full scale working model that mirrors the cockpit of a school bus or semi-truck tractor, the platform replicates exactly the touch, tone, sounds, look, and feel of every aspect of what a driver would experience if they were sitting in the driver’s seat of the real thing – right down to the automatic air-ride driver’s seat and the sound of the air door closing. The ‘driver’ can even physically feel and see the vehicle’s response to any number of instructor inputs introduced to the driver while they are operating the simulator, such as for fog, rain, ice, snow, and even mud on any kind of terrain, in day or night conditions.
Its principal purpose will be a training tool to enhance safety by sharpening existing drivers’ situational awareness and response skills from the safety of a simulator. It’s also a great resource to introduce people to an authentic working cockpit of a school bus who might otherwise be too intimidated to even try. This might just be the ‘fun’ experience they need to boost their confidence enough to take the next step and sign up to be a driver.
With a 1,200-square mile Northern Lower Michigan school district to traverse, our goals are to use the simulator to train our own drivers to help sharpen their critical driving skills and also to use this cutting-edge technology as a recruiting tool to generate interest in a career field that desperately needs capable candidates.
In addition, we hope our school bus aides may be interested in upgrading their skills to become bus drivers by allowing them the opportunity to try their hand at ‘driving’ a bus via the simulator, to see if it’s a good fit. For those who successfully cross-train to the driver ranks, there are significant financial incentives for us to reward them with for their efforts.
There’s evidence these efforts are already paying off. Shortly after acquiring the simulator, I was approached by another staff member outside of our Char-Em ISD Transportation Department who saw the simulator and asked what it would take to get her CDL. After a quick tour of the equipment, she was even more excited about the prospect, convinced this would be a good fit for her.
We’re already making plans to add a second simulator in a mobile platform that will afford us the ability to deliver this technology and training to students from the 11 constituent school districts we serve, expanding our award-winning career tech education offerings to them even further.
Those include course offerings for: power line workers, construction trades, welding, public safety, and automotive technology. Being able to expose students to what it would take to get their CDL – which many of these skilled trades require – makes this new simulator technology an invaluable addition to welding, heavy equipment, aviation, and drone simulators that are already in-use as key training resources and recruiting tools through Char-Em ISD’s Career Tech Ed programs.
The excitement generated from using the latest driving simulator technology to attract talent to the school bus remains very high. We’re certain that this investment in technology will attract new bus drivers and keep existing drivers safe by sharpening their already-keen skills, benefitting our students, staff and our communities for years to come.
Phillip Haldaman serves as the Transportation Coordinator for the Char-Em ISD in NW Lower Michigan. If you’d like more information on the use of this simulator technology, or would like to stop by for a ‘test drive,’ the author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (231) 582-8070.
Here are some of the simulator’s impressive hardware specifics:
– Three 55″ full-color HD flat-screen monitors
– Intel-based computers with high-speed platform and graphics cards
– An LCD “glass dash” instrument panel
– Rugged steel chassis and ergonomically correct cockpit
– Force-feedback steering
– OEM steering wheel, shifting components, and cockpit controls
– Transmission configurability for multiple shift and gear applications from manual to automatics
– Air-ride seat with 3-point seat-belt
– OEM headlights and hazard lights control switches
– A separate teacher-control station
Some of the simulator’s software specifics include:
– V3.3 premier edition software w/auto-scoring/grading
– Fully interactive multi-screen driving environment with 24-hour atmospheric simulation
– MS Windows operating system
– TruckSim high-fidelity vehicle dynamics modeling w/different tractor and load configurations (not only for school bus applications, but flat-bed, partial semi-trailer loads, load-shifting, and even tanker configurations)
– A comprehensive training curriculum with over 40 lessons and 80+ driving exercises and scenarios
– Unlimited practice driving in: city, expressway, mountains, test track, and driving range scenarios
– Crash avoidance and multiple adverse weather condition scenarios
– High-resolution, textured 3-D imaging on all screens to closely replicate reality