OCTA, Saddleback College, and Santa Ana College Partnership Puts Students in the Driver’s Seat Feature Story

February 12, 2024
Bus Driver Training

In 2022, Saddleback College created a bus driver workforce training program specifically designed for Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) to respond to the critical demand for more bus drivers. The training was so successful — with every participant finding employment — that Santa Ana College (SAC) collaborated with Saddleback College to turn its training curriculum into a noncredit college program. This spring, SAC’s Bus Operator/Driver program offered its first class and Saddleback College approved the curriculum to offer the noncredit program next spring.

“There is a dire need for bus drivers,” says Lorena Chavez, dean of instruction and student services at SAC School of Continuing Education, which is now offering the free, noncredit Bus Operator/Driver program. “Due to retirements, there has been a mass exodus from the industry making it a challenge to find enough public transportation and school bus drivers. I’m happy we’ve been able to respond to this need.”

According to reports, Orange County has more than 250 job openings for transit bus drivers annually and an additional 200 annual job openings for school bus drivers. At the same time, there are an additional 1,260 job openings each year for light truck drivers, such as those who drive Amazon or UPS delivery trucks. In nearby Los Angeles County, those three categories combine to total nearly 7,000 job openings annually with starting pay ranging $42,000-$52,000.

To help meet this need in Orange County, Saddleback College launched a customized training academy for OCTA as part of its Economic and Workforce Development Initiative in 2022. The goal of the program was to prepare individuals to take the Commercial Class B license test and apply for OCTA jobs.

Since then, Saddleback has graduated 72 students in seven cohorts and has just welcomed its eighth. All participants  successfully completed the program—31 of whom have gone on to get hired by OCTA.  The remaining 41 have also found work as drivers but for other organizations.

Israel Dominguez, director of economic and workforce development at Saddleback College, was pleased  to see the training expand into a noncredit program.

“My philosophy is that you can accomplish more by collaborating with others whether it be other businesses or other colleges,” Dominguez said. “This is a good opportunity. We are changing people’s lives.”

The idea to create a noncredit program was a practical one.

“Saddleback College was obviously doing a wonderful job, but given the demand, we thought a second program in a central location like Santa Ana could serve a lot of people,” said Osiel “Ozzie” Madrigal, workforce development coordinator, associate professor, and department chair at SAC’s School of Continuing Education.

To make this happen, Santa Ana College (SAC) used the curriculum Saddleback had developed to guide the creation of its free, noncredit Bus Operator/Driver program. This is a great benefit to Saddleback College, which will continue to offer its OCTA program and use SAC’s program model to develop its own noncredit offerings starting in Spring 2025. Not only will the two colleges share resources, such as instructors, they will also alternate when they offer the program to avoid competition.

“We’re not going to be stepping on each other’s toes because we’ve agreed to rotate when we offer the courses. Together, we’re going to expand the number of candidates available and meet a workforce shortage with this regional collaboration.”

Like Saddleback Colleges’s program, SAC’s Bus Operator/Driver program is a fast, 8-week training program that prepares students for the Commercial B License test.

The course includes hands-on, behind-the-wheel training and instruction on customer service, the pre-trip inspection, and safety procedures. Students (must be 18 years old and have a valid California driver’s license) also work with an OCTA professional to complete the application, practice answering interview questions, and gain an understanding of the application process. 

Despite this intimate collaboration, the programs won’t be identical.

“Each college runs their program how they see fit,” Chavez said. “The actual implementation will look a little different for each college.”

What will be the same is that every graduate will receive an interview with OCTA, though they can apply with any organization.

OCTA is thrilled to expand the program to Santa Ana College with the hopes of reaching more potential candidates.

“OCTA coach operators provide the highest level of service in our community, helping people safely and efficiently better access school, jobs, medical appointments and other destinations across Orange County,” says Megan Abba, senior communications specialist at OCTA . “Drivers at OCTA are also given opportunities to advance in their careers. Approximately 80 percent of bus operations managers at OCTA started as bus drivers.”

Chavez emphasizes that opportunity for advancement is important. “It’s super critical that we respond to this urgent workforce need, but at the end of the day, if it’s going to put someone on a career path with the opportunity for advancement, then that’s why we do what we do.”