I (We) Run Our Own Driving School – Would You?

My husband and I operate a large driving school in the state of Michigan, one that sees approximately 9,000 teenagers come through our various doors each year. In our business, it’s either feast or famine; summer is crazy hectic, and those weeks after Christmas when we pray for the phone to ring leave me crying out in boredom.

Every once in a while, one of our employees will decide to break off and start their own school. They see the amount of tuition, multiply that by the number of students per class, and decide we must be sitting on a goldmine. They want a piece of the action.

But don’t rev your engine; it’s not all green lights running a driving school. There are many factors to consider before one should make the decision to start a business in this business, and not all of them are financial.

Do you like people? Do you like kids? Being an instructor requires a phenomenal amount of courage, patience, and (no pun intended) street smarts, which is why I’m not an instructor. Some teenagers are sassy; others are timid; most are scared of cars. As a driving coach, you’ll have to take that green 14 year old and turn him into a confident novice driver.

Do you have the time and money to be licensed? In order to obtain an instructor license in Michigan, one must pass a college level class on instructor preparation. The cost varies from $3000 – $5000 depending on the institution. This class takes approximately a year to complete.

Once you have received your transcript, the licensing procedure begins. The applicant must of course have a clean driving record, submit a signed medical form (you pay for the exam), a criminal background check (approximately $75), and a fee of $45 to the State.

And that’s just the licensing to become an instructor.

Licensing a school includes infinitely more layers of paperwork and bureaucracy. Some items to consider are as follows:

Automobiles. Cars are an expensive outlay in a driving school. There is purchase, maintenance, and licensing costs. Cars used for drivers ed must also be outfitted with a dual brake. It’s been our experience that many retail auto shops won’t install dual brakes for reasons of liability. We learned to install the brakes ourselves, and make certain we have a few people on staff who know how to do it too. Driver education vehicles in Michigan must also display appropriate signage, to let others on the road know the car is being used for training.

Insurance. If you think insuring a personal automobile is expensive, try insuring a fleet of cars used specifically for drivers ed. Many insurance companies won’t touch that kind of policy with a 10 foot pole. If you’re running your own school, you will need a bond, workers’ compensation insurance, and an umbrella policy.

Class room space. Will you rent or buy? Class room space must be insured as well, and the State requires a positive review by the local fire marshal before they will approve class room space. Class room space must be supplied with desks and/or tables, dry erase boards, computers, etc.

Office space. Some of the smaller driver training schools operate out of a home office. Larger operations like ours will have a dedicated office and office staff available to answer phones during regular business hours. Some considerations may include storage of files (we’re required to keep records for seven years), computers, office furniture, copy and fax machines, phone and internet service.

Taxes. Running your own business means having to pay taxes – state, federal, local – on a quarterly basis. Employees have taxes taken out each paycheck. Do you have the discipline to set your tax money aside in order to make the payments on time?

Once you have the nuts and bolts of the actual business in place, consider whether or not you have the skill (or can hire the skill) to keep up with paperwork. The State requires paperwork to be submitted before a scheduled class (to let them know where and when the class will be held). Once the class is completed, they want forms filled out regarding who was in class, and the certificates issued to each student. At the end of the year, the licensing begins again (many pages of paperwork to fill out), and the driving school must provide a list of employees, and the number of students who went through the program in each location.

State curriculum is available online. The State written test is drawn from a number of test questions in a pool once a year. This is computer generated and each school receives a set of test questions, all of which are randomly chosen.

Let’s not forget customer service. Do you have the communication skills necessary to explain the program and state laws and regulations? The current graduated licensing law is quite a bit different from the law of the land when the parents took drivers ed. While there are times when the job is satisfying, there are other times when customers call with concerns or complaints. This is to be expected when the lives of minor children are in our hands. Are your problem solving skills sufficient enough to resolve sticky situations?

Also, can you save money from the summer to carry you through those bleak winter months where no one (seems to) wants to attempt to learn to drive? Like saving for taxes, living on a seasonal income takes a certain amount of discipline.

If you’ve answered yes to all of the above, perhaps a career in driver education is a good fit for you.

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