A shortage of school bus drivers in Howard County, caused in part by the county's increased affluence, tougher state regulations, and the large number of women entering the work force, has prompted bus contractors to launch their first full-scale advertising campaign, including a job hot line, to attract new candidates.

"We need drivers countywide," said Barbara Ely, president of the Howard County School Bus Contractors Association, a voluntary trade group composed of 38 private contractors.

Ely, who operates a fleet of 15 school buses, said her company, E & B Ely Inc., in Ellicott City needs "three good drivers now."

But she said bus contractors are finding the pool of job prospects shrinking with fewer people willing to work the odd, fragmented hours or to accept the no-fringes wages, which start at about $6 an hour.

The competition has become so fierce for trained bus operators, contractors said, that contractors are raiding each other's shops, enticing drivers with pay raises of 25 to 50 cents per hour.

Some bus contractors have begun recruiting county firefighters and police officers to fill vacancies, although their full-time jobs sometimes conflict with inflexible school schedules, according to Ely.

While the driver shortage has not reached crisis level, bus contractors and Howard school transportation officials said the situation is getting more serious.

"It's a continuous recruiting problem," said Ben Hartmann, the school system's director of pupil transportation. Each year, 30 percent of the bus drivers quit for personal or financial reasons, he said.

Next month, the bus contractors association plans a major advertising push to attract bus drivers, Ely said. The group will set up a telephone hot line for job openings and place ads in local newspapers, she explained.

Ely said the association also is considering other incentives, including hospitalization benefits and day care services.

Most public school systems in Maryland use private contractors to transport students to and from school, except in large metropolitan areas, such as Baltimore and Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Neighboring Anne Arundel County has the largest private school bus contracting service in the state, transporting 44,570 students daily, said William Kerns, supervisor of transportation.

This year, close to 20,000 Howard County students, including special education, vocational-technology and kindergarten students, will ride a school bus each day, Hartmann said.

About $6.5 million of the school system's $7.3 million total 1988 transportation budget will be spent on reimbursements to about 52 contractors, he said.

Because of the county's rapid growth, school officials add several new bus routes each year. But some of the older contractors said they are reluctant to take on the new assignments because of the scarcity of dependable drivers.

"It's very hard now to find good drivers," said Ginny Mullinix, the first female bus contractor in the county. Mullinix, who started her own bus service 29 years ago, said she relies mainly on word-of-mouth advertising for applicants.

However, traditional sources for new bus drivers are drying up because of the county's changing demographics, Ely said.

Before 1950, school bus contracting in Howard was dominated by farmers, who could drive students to school between their daily chores. The majority of their bus drivers were then women, mainly housewives wanting to earn extra income.

Over the past 30 years, however, a new system has evolved. Today more women are working full time and farmers are selling former pasture lands to high-stakes developers, Ely said. The women still at home want part-time jobs that offer health and retirement benefits and pay enough to cover day care costs, she said.

"Everything is constantly changing," Ely said. "More families require two paychecks to make ends meet."

The salaries paid to bus drivers are kept under wraps among contractors. But several contractors and bus drivers said the hourly pay ranges from $6 an hour for a beginning driver to about $11 an hour for the most experienced drivers. In comparison, bus drivers in the publicly operated Prince George's County school system, make an average of $10.50 to $11 an hour, excluding benefits such as health insurance, said John Huffman, director of school transportation.

Tougher state regulations also have weeded out marginal candidates, Hartmann said. Job applicants now are carefully screened by Howard school officials who conduct criminal-background checks, annual physical exams, and a review of driving records, he said.

About 15 percent of the applicants fail the physical exam, Hartmann said. The Howard school system also has two paid training instructors for new bus drivers, who must have six hours of classroom and four to six weeks of behind-the-wheel driving in preparation for the Maryland licensing test.

Nevertheless, some veterans, such as Mullinix, say they fear newer contractors may take safety shortcuts to improve their profits. "Your bus should come first," she said. "The maintenance comes first."

Last year, 67 accidents on school buses involving damage of $100 or more were reported. More than half of the accidents, 39, occurred when no students were on the bus, school officials said.

Hartmann said the school system has an extensive contractor and driver monitoring program to ensure student safety. Buses are inspected three times a year, along with spot inspections by school staff, he said. In addition, bus drivers must take an annual "refresher" safety class and annual physical exams, Hartmann said.