Student transportation will always have its unique challenges, from student safety to fuel costs and supply chain issues. As industry professionals, we’re exploring not just immediate trends, but those on the horizon as well. In this Q&A, we ask ASTP President Tod Eskra for his thoughts on the future of student transportation, and what he sees on the road ahead.
Q. What are the three biggest challenges facing student transportation right now?
A. I’m going to cheat a little bit here and say drivers, drivers, and drivers. Yes, there are definitely other important issues facing school bus contractors right now, but when we look at the single most impactful part of our industry, it’s the people behind the wheel. Without drivers – the right drivers, mind you – we’re at a standstill.
We know the national unemployment rate is very low right now; we also know a fair number of school bus drivers left the industry over the past couple of years as a result of the pandemic. So, how do we draw in both those experienced drivers who may have stepped away from our industry while continuing to attract new driver talent? Only organizations that are actively addressing this question are going to be successful going forward.
For us, hiring the right drivers is really solving for “R-squared E”: Recruiting, retention, and engagement. Although filling the top of the funnel with quality driver candidates is critically important, we also need to ensure our team members are happy and engaged so we can keep them on the team. Set up a top-tier organization, provide the right resources and technology, and above all, treat people well – and you’ll spend less time chasing excellent drivers because they’ll gravitate to your company. We’ve built ASTP as a people-first organization, and I see this reflected daily in our ability to attract and retain frontline talent.
Q. Besides recruiting, what other industry challenges are you watching right now?
A. I think student transportation providers are going to see continued pressure in a couple of familiar places: fleet upgrades and supply chain issues. Smaller contractors in particular – who are vitally important to their districts, by the way – are disproportionately affected by both of these. In response, we expect to see more contractors seeking out partnerships that will help them navigate these challenges through deeper resources and economies of scale.
Relatedly, we also see more school districts open to moving from fully in-house transportation programs to partnerships with contractors. District administrators with in-house programs face the same transportation challenges we do, but they’re managing huge educational responsibilities on top of that. As student transportation evolves, programs are becoming more complex – integrating EV, for example – and smart administrators are seeing the value of a contractor partner focused solely on transportation, so they can concentrate on their core mission.
Q. You mention EV – electric vehicles – which are everywhere in the news today. How do you see EV progressing in the next 12 months or so?
A. EV is an incredibly important development in student transportation, no doubt. But it also feels like a rapidly changing environment right now. One important quality I see in ASTP leadership is our team’s ability to cut through industry chatter and examine trends and issues as part of a long-term strategy. With EV, we’re keeping a close eye on its potential but also on several of the “unknowns” connected to it. For instance, do school districts have the infrastructure to support electric school buses? If a district wants to add EVs to an existing fleet, can they absorb the immediate and ongoing costs? Are they prepared for a protracted production schedule for those new buses?
These kinds of questions can temper some of the exuberance around EVs and give us a more realistic understanding of both the value and cost of electric vehicles. I don’t see EV going away, and I think there’s tremendous potential there in the long term. If we’re talking about this year in particular, I’d say smart school bus contractors will move ahead with some caution as EV technology begins to catch up with the public interest surrounding those alternative vehicles.
Q. You mentioned the ASTP leadership team and its focus on long-term strategy. Can you expand on that?
Absolutely. One of the things I appreciate most about ASTP is that the leadership team comes with decades of experience in transportation, most of us specifically in student transportation. That depth of experience brings with it a much more nuanced approach to business – especially when it comes to acquisitions. We’re not just rolling into town with a checkbook; we’re seeking partnerships with best-in-class contractors, with the intention of continuing and expanding their legacies.
That’s where the long-term vision comes into play. ASTP may be a fairly new organization, but because each of us has been in the student transportation industry for so long, we understand the very personal nature of an acquisition as seen from the perspective of a contractor.
Some of these contractors are so busy with their day-to-day work, it’s hard for them to get a look above tree line, so to speak. That high-level, objective, experienced view of a school bus contractor’s business is one of the most important resources we provide. Once we’ve worked with them to identify what is important to them, we can then bring in resources to move them forward.
Q. Based on what you’ve learned since joining ASTP last year, have you implemented any significant changes to your business strategy for 2023?
A. The ongoing investments we’re making in technology, processes, and people will continue to give our contractor partners a solid foundation for future growth. I expect we’ll see continued economic uncertainty at a national level, and that might nudge a few contractors toward acquisition as a path to growth. So, we’ll continue to bring expertise, financial stability, and strong relationships to the acquisition process and remain committed to growing our partners’ businesses.
Q. Any final predictions for the next 12 months?
A. One prediction I feel very good about is that we’ll be meeting with some interesting school bus contractors, learning about their businesses, and showing them that ASTP is ready and able to partner with them to help them achieve their business goals. I genuinely enjoy being part of an organization that’s driving the future of student transportation, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future brings for ASTP and our partner contractors.
Ready to learn more about how ASTP is driving the future of student transportation? Reach out to us.
American Student Transportation Partners (ASTP) is a national network of reliable student transportation providers, ensuring better access to education through safe, dependable student transportation programs. Exceptional bus operators choose ASTP because of our innovative approach to partnership, as well as the resources we provide to help “future-proof” their operations.
To learn more about partnering with ASTP, contact Tod Eskra, President, at [email protected] or call (314) 560-5946.