CHICAGO (CBS) — A nationwide driver shortage and a looming return to in-person learning; that combination has local bus companies scrambling to find enough drivers for the upcoming school year.

CBS 2 Morning Insider Tim McNicholas shows us how they’re thinking outside the box and outside the bus.

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The corner of 26th and Western is also the intersection of bus driving and marketing, where bus drivers and monitors double as job recruiters for Illinois Central School Bus, using an array of advertising tactics to get people to stop and learn more about openings. Incentives include a $1,000 sign-on bonus and free commercial driver’s license training.

‘We need these people now. These kids, they need to get to school now,” said Cindy Sosnowski, the contract manager at Illinois Central School Bus, a company that buses Chicago Public School students. “It’s really hard to get people into the door, even just to bring ‘em in and say, ‘Hey, sit behind the wheel, try to get comfortable.’”

Sosnowski said they have about 15 percent fewer drivers than 2019, before the pandemic forced schools to switch to remote learning last year.

That shortage could impact the number of routes they can handle.

“There’s going to be people that would have bus transportation normally; but that bus might run an hour, two hours late. Because people, people are not coming in to get employed,” Sosnowski said.

In the suburbs, Grand Prairie Transit said they usually have about 2,400 drivers, but right now they only have about 1,800.

Like Illinois Central, they’re aggressively trying to hire more.

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Illinois Central driver Abel Desedirio said he remembers a surplus of drivers when he started in 2019.

“Kids are excited to go to school, meet up with their friends, and the chances of a driver not being able to do the route, it’s pretty worrisome, but it’s something we have to work with,” Desedirio said.

Sosnowski blamed the shortages on people finding other income sources during the pandemic, and fear of the more contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

She’s reminding applicants that all buses are sanitized daily.

“These children have suffered greatly. We have to get these kids to school. They deserve it. They deserve to get to school,” she said.

Her hope is to hire at least 25 more drivers by Aug. 30, no matter how much marketing it takes.

CPS uses multiple bus vendors to cover their routes. The district said they are experiencing driver shortages, but they planned for this, and they expect to be able to provide full transportation services.

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Illinois Central will be hosting a job fair at their facility at 2555 S. Blue Island Ave. on Friday, Aug. 20 from 10 a.m. to noon.

Tim McNicholas