With the right planning and training, the transition to electric school buses can benefit workers too. We talked to stakeholders across the industry about how to make it happen.
Photo credit: SEA Electric
The transition to electric school buses (ESBs) will transform communities and we must ensure that a just transition for school bus workers also occurs. To better understand gaps in workforce development for ESB operators and maintenance technicians, CALSTART, Michigan Clean Cities, Manufacturing Renaissance, and WRI’s Electric School Bus Initiative convened an Industry Electric School Bus Working Group that met in a series of meetings in 2022. This group comprised representatives from manufacturers, operators, dealers, maintenance providers, and community colleges. Through this collaborative effort, the group gained a deeper understanding of the workforce and training challenges in preparing for ESBs and identified recommendations for training implementation. This article highlights learnings from the working group to help manufacturers, school bus operators, as well as curriculum providers with their reskilling efforts.
Electric School Bus Operation & Maintenance
Electric school buses (ESBs) are becoming an increasingly popular choice for school districts in the United States, driven by air quality and climate change concerns, new funding programs, state targets, and technological advancement. ESBs provide a cleaner and healthier ride for students while minimizing operating costs for school districts and eliminating tailpipe emissions. The transition to ESBs demands well-trained people to operate and maintain both the vehicles and charging infrastructure. With less than 1% of the nearly 500,000 school buses on the road today being electric, a relatively small number of school districts and their staff have experience working with electric school buses. This new technology calls for new training to move from incumbent diesel buses to electric models.
A range of school bus staff including fleet operators, maintenance technicians, drivers, school bus dealers, and first responders need access to robust training to safely and effectively support the operations and maintenance of ESBs. In particular, technicians and mechanics need extensive training to work in the presence of high voltage batteries and electrical systems. While electric school buses share many of the same driving and performance characteristics as their internal combustion and fossil fuel counterparts, there are new driving techniques, charging protocols, and maintenance considerations unique to electric vehicles. Training diesel and gasoline technician talent on electric drive systems is key to a just transition that maintains jobs and prepares for this new technology.
The shift to ESBs has the potential to either create opportunities or result in job losses for the current workforce. ESBs require fewer parts and maintenance compared to their internal combustion counterparts (approximately 200 parts, compared to around 2,000). Of concern, Black Americans represent a high proportion of school bus drivers and automotive manufacturing workers compared to the general labor market and could be disproportionately affected. Intentional efforts to include workers in the ESB transition are important to avoid perpetuating inequities.
It is crucial that this workforce has access to this specialized training, as well as higher paying jobs and equitable hiring practices to ensure worker wellbeing and safe livelihoods. Partnerships between manufacturers, fleets, community colleges and training institutions can create a workforce pipeline to serve as a model for scaling training.
Training diesel and gasoline technician talent on electric drive systems is key to a just transition that maintains jobs and prepares for this new technology.
Working Group Partners
- CALSTART is a non-profit organization working nationally and internationally with businesses and governments to develop clean, efficient transportation solutions. CALSTART is a network that connects companies and government agencies and helps them do their jobs better.
- Manufacturing Renaissance has a mission to advance inclusive sustainable development anchored in manufacturing with goals to expand coalitions and technical assistance to support manufacturing programs and inspire and prepare young people from Black, Latino and other people of color, low-income communities and public education to secure and retain jobs in manufacturing.
- Michigan Clean Cities is part of a network of nearly 90 coalitions in the U.S. through the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities Initiative. Michigan Clean Cities is made up of stakeholders with a mission to improve air quality and energy security in Michigan by reducing dependence on oil in transportation fuels through alternative fuel and vehicle usage, and fuel economy practices.
- World Resources Institute hosts the Electric School Bus Initiative that, in collaboration with partners and communities, aims to build unstoppable momentum toward an equitable transition of the U.S. school bus fleet to electric by 2030, bringing health, climate and economic benefits to children and families across the country and normalizing electric mobility for an entire generation.
Identifying the Challenge
The table below presents similarities and differences between internal combustion and electric school buses at the vehicle level. School bus operators will have a relatively similar experience to diesel and gasoline buses when transitioning to electric with the key differences being charging to refuel and regenerative braking. Maintenance technicians will experience a steeper learning curve since vehicle component and system-level differences are greater under the hood.
|Internal Combustion Only
|Internal Combustion & Electric Similarities
Fuel tank and refueling
Combustion engine performance
Engine and exhaust
School bus body & chassis configuration
Suspension, steering and brake systems
Gauges and accessories
Driving with regenerative braking
State-of-charge and range considerations
Charger and charger port management
Engine system (engine, radiator, oil filter, coolant hoses, etc.)
Exhaust system (exhaust pipes, exhaust brake, etc.)
Fuel system (tank, pump, injector, etc.)
Body and interior maintenance (doors, windows, seats, etc.)
Climate control system (HVAC, vents, heating)
Brakes and suspension
Gauges and warnings (instrument cluster, fault codes)
High-voltage systems (battery, inverter, components, etc.)
High-voltage safety (protective equipment, procedures)
Charger system (outlets, wiring, voltage, etc)
Chassis and driveline system modifications (body mounts, e-axles, drive shaft)
Source: Adapted from WRI 2023
What Does Training Look Like Today?
Typically, school bus original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) develop and provide training programs for both combustion and electric vehicles, which are disseminated to their dealer networks for delivery to the end users. School district operators and maintenance technicians then rely on their dealers for training. ESB dealer training might include presentations, written materials, vehicle walk-arounds, test drives, and charging demonstrations. For manufacturer direct-to-consumer (DTC) businesses, where there is no dealer involved, OEMs provide training directly to the school district. DTC business models are typically electric-only OEMs like Tesla and Lion Electric. In most cases, training is generally provided once ESBs are delivered to the operator and typically occurs one time.
The training provided by dealers and OEMs is proprietary and not widely shared. Beyond basic bus maintenance (fluid and brakes checks, low voltage systems, body fixes, etc.), ESB maintenance can be complex and requires proper training to operate on the high voltage system. As a result, it is not uncommon for the vehicle to be returned to the manufacturer (sometimes several states or counties away) for more advanced repairs that on-site technicians are not permitted to perform. This current model is not sustainable for wide scale adoption of ESBs. Fortunately, some organizations have already recognized this challenge and offer EV training programs. Among the organizations currently providing or developing such training programs are the California Energy Commission, Colorado Department of Transportation, LegacyEV, National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium, Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program and First Student.
Challenges and Recommendations
Today, training for electric bus operators is not standardized across OEMs, which means the quality and robustness can vary widely. There is no core set of foundational knowledge that is consistent across all ESB training platforms. Ideally, training would cover electric vehicle basics, high voltage safety, charging, operating the ESB and basic preventive maintenance. A standardized training curricula could ensure all ESB drivers and technicians would learn the same content and apply the same level of precaution when working with high-voltage battery systems and maintaining electric school buses.
While standardized training would be the gold standard, there are obstacles. First, the various powertrain and electric systems vary between ESB manufacturers. Second, the technology is fast-evolving and changes rapidly. While high voltage safety training might be universal across all makes and models, the specific vehicle sub-components vary across manufacturers and sometimes within a single brand. School bus OEMs regularly announce new suppliers and innovations for their ESBs, and new generations can have different features. A common set of learning objectives and standards can help the ESB industry establish the necessary basics while allowing for future content variability.
Follow-up or ongoing training for fleets with ESBs is rare. The OEM or dealer typically conducts training at delivery and rarely returns for continuous or regular training. Yet, ongoing ESB training would be useful to refresh operator and technician skill sets, mitigate any staff turnover, and address nuanced questions that occur after ESBs are in-service, like refined use of regenerative braking. A universal accreditation for ESB skillsets akin to light-duty or fossil fuel vehicles, like those offered by ASE, can ensure a standard knowledge base that can be transferable to other jobs.
Costs and Complexity of Training
The ESB OEMs and dealers are primarily vehicle builders and are not in the business of training and education. In fact, training is largely an add-on activity for manufacturers and dealers whose main business involves producing, selling, and servicing vehicles. Companies do not have instructional designers and instructors to conduct fleet training, which would be considered a best practice in creating teaching content. The current model of training, which requires in-person support at every ESB delivery, is also costly and unscalable. While this custom training approach works for very few deployments of ESBs, it will be unfeasible with the anticipated number of ESBs being deployed over the next two years.
Maintenance technicians face cost barriers to entry as well due to specialized training and tools. If a mechanic or technician wants to self-enroll in learning or acquire skillsets while in a formal training program or school, they may not have access to a reputable training program or a vehicle to practice on, and they would have to invest in proper tools, materials and personal protective equipment (PPE), which can cost thousands of dollars. There may be an opportunity for funding programs like the EPA Clean School Bus Program or state awards to help cover training material costs.
There are high financial barriers for both individuals and OEMs that want to undertake workforce training. A collective approach would make this specialized training make sense and could be implemented through online resources, hands-on practice, and regional training centers.
Recruitment and Retention
There is a severe national shortage of automotive technicians and school bus drivers due to several factors including recruitment challenges, low pay, and retirements. Private sector companies are competing with schools for qualified drivers and typically offer 20% higher wages than school districts. As electric heavy-duty trucking emerges, there will also be increased competition to attract and retain drivers and technicians with EV experience. Staffing shortages combined with the additional training support needed to implement a new technology will lead to delays in the ESB adoption process.
Reskilling existing school bus drivers and technicians on electric vehicle systems could be a retention tool and unique experience, likely leading to higher wages and more competition for skilled workers. In turn, more workers could be attracted to join the emerging field, leading to a more robust workforce. These workers include school district workers and larger unions that require electric systems training. Additionally, engaging youth and school-aged students in the process by exposing them to unique technology might help build long-term workforce pipelines to address the forecasted gaps in skilled labor.
Ensuring a Just Transition for Bus Operations & Maintenance Staff
The benefits of ESBs and electrification should prioritize disadvantaged communities and historically underrepresented workers. Workers of color, particularly Black workers, women, and people with disabilities, have limited upward mobility in the automotive sector in addition to intersectional pay gaps across sectors and should thus be a significant focus of training and upskilling efforts. Training that is offered during the workday, both online and on-site can help avoid conflicts with child care and support working parents. Furthermore, accessible training for people of differing abilities and languages can attract new areas of talent and help alleviate severe worker shortages.
While community colleges and apprenticeship programs serve as hands-on training centers and providers of certified learning credentials, barriers exist for many to enroll, and workforce training could begin further upstream. Supporting high schools and colleges located in diverse neighborhoods, in addition to recruiting and onboarding racially and socially diverse talent, is necessary to develop an early workforce pipeline.
Finally, making ESB training content freely accessible to all would foster equity in the ESB transition. The shift away from proprietary training curricula that is either specific to one manufacturer or hidden behind paywalls and licenses would allow universal access to the learning material and help alleviate existing job shortages. Prioritizing inclusive practices for an equitable transition, minimizes the risk of furthering inequalities.
Reskilling existing school bus drivers and technicians on electric vehicle systems could be a retention tool and unique experience, likely leading to higher wages and more competition for skilled workers.
Most stakeholders agreed that developing training programs, creating career pathways, and identifying other best practices for workforce development are important next steps for the electric school bus industry. The four challenges and recommendations highlighted can serve as opportunities for the industry. We recommend the following future steps:
- Define common learning objectives and trusted accreditation bodies to ensure universal knowledge in ESB systems
- Combine technical content and training from multiple manufacturers and dealers to create a brand-agnostic training resource
- Prioritize equity for underrepresented workers to not only prevent inequities but also serve as new pipelines for talent and retention
- Ensure that training is a key part in bus procurement and kept as open source for a wider audience
We envision best practices that create technician and operator training programs based on recommendations from OEMs and subject matter experts. Vetted programs should then be disseminated as courses via online platforms, training institutions, and community colleges while ensuring electric school bus operators have continual access. Regional learning centers formed through joint investments from multiple stakeholders could serve as hands-on training facilities with physical equipment and tools for both incoming and current ESB operators and technicians. The ESB industry is in its early stages of deployment, and with thousands of new ESBs joining school district fleets in the coming months, it is at a critical time for training the next generation of operators and technicians.
Acknowledgements: Rachel Chard, Ian Fried, Erica Staley, Maggie Striz Calnin, James Leonard, Yuetong Zheng, Caitlin Macomber, Carla Walker, Katherine Roboff, Tom Meyer, and all working group participants