PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It’s back to school for students across Southern New England which means those big yellow school buses will be back out and about.

Across the country, school districts are struggling with a shortage of bus drivers, but what about Rhode Island?

First Student is the largest bus operator in the state, which contracts with about a dozen districts including Providence, Warwick, Cranston, Pawtucket, Warren, Jamestown and more.

Just like other industries, the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on their driver workforce, but Bill Roche, Head of First Student, says they are cautiously optimistic heading into the new year.

While they are always looking to find additional drivers, so far this year First Student has hired more than 140 employees, including 70 since June alone.

“Certainly the pandemic of 2020 put a damper on our recruitment and our hiring process, but I think we’ve made some great strides this year,” Roche said. “[We have] made some adjustments, raised wages significantly through our union contracts. We’ve also added some additional benefits, whether it’s paid holidays or paid sick time.”

He added they also have more than a dozen drivers in training who should be hitting the road in about a week or so.

They have also added more routes compared to last year and have worked to hold onto the employees they already had.

“There’s always going to be a challenge, there’s no doubt about it,” Roche said. “Typically over the summer, we lose anywhere between 10-20% of employees. This summer we’ve lost less than 10%. We put a full court press on retention efforts and we kept our employees because we value our employees.”

Roche says they are always hiring CDL drivers, who operate the traditional 40-foot buses, as well as van drivers and bus aides.

If you are interested in applying you’re urged to visit their website.

Get Back to School Ready with 12 News This Morning starting at 6 a.m. on weekdays for continuing coverage and information that will help students, parents and teachers this academic year.