Embracing The Future Of Funeral Service

By: Alex Kistler
Wednesday, February 14, 2024

The hiring process often feels like an uphill battle for many funeral home owners. Unfilled roles, not enough qualified candidates, frustrated staff, and time & money invested. And we hear from those in the know that roughly 50% of those who attend mortuary school leave the profession within 5 years. Does that sound like a recipe for long-term success to you? No way, that sounds like a nightmare! 

We have a strategy for you to consider that might be a solution for both you and the profession and just might turn that nightmare into a dream scenario. While hiring someone new to the profession may not have made sense for your firm 5-10 years ago—when licensed staff were easier to find--perhaps in the current job market AND with so many owners looking to retire by the end of the decade, that risk-reward calculation is worth a re-think.

We are acutely aware of the daily challenges many firms face in finding licensed staff. We hear the stories every day, and in our own business, we see the lack of A+ candidates willing and able to relocate to where they are needed. Owners are looking for candidates with a solid work ethic, great technical skills, advanced communication skills, and people who are dressed for success. Those are the attributes virtually every firm is seeking, and many hiring managers are also looking for technology expertise, 24/7 availability, and the physical strength to “do it all”.

We speak with mortuary students and early-career funeral professionals every week, providing guidance on what to expect as they first enter and then grow in the profession. We help our funeral home partners understand why apprentices, interns, and residents (hereafter referred to as “apprentices”) can be a valuable part of their candidate pool. There may be advantages to hiring an apprentice that you have not considered lately. Finding the right person, with the proper potential, can be a valuable part of gaining new skills while maintaining fiscal discipline.

I recently had the opportunity to visit several mortuary schools, and many students expressed their concern regarding how few opportunities there are for them. Doesn’t that seem odd at a time when so many firms are looking for help? Despite reaching out to funeral homes that are hiring, many of those seeking an apprenticeship were turned away without as much as an introductory conversation. We wonder if these owners may have missed out on potential “A” Players. After all, those owners and hiring managers were once at the start of their careers too!

We also speak with owners and hiring managers daily, and we understand that an apprentice will not have the same Day 1 impact as a 15-year licensee. And if 15-year licensees were easy to find, we might be suggesting a different strategy. But in today’s market, with the supply and demand skewed so deeply against supply, experienced staff are not easy to find nor as budget-friendly. So, we would humbly suggest another way, as the challenge is often about finding the right people, at the right price, who can add value in the short and long term.

In many cases, hiring an apprentice can be relatively swift to accomplish, easy on the budget, and the best option to get you closer to your ideal staffing levels. And it is an investment in your firm’s future, especially if you can find an apprentice with local ties and a sense of loyalty to your firm and the families you serve. Invest in them up-front, help in their professional development path, and then reward them with additional responsibilities as they earn them.

IN THE SHORT TERM…apprentices offer the potential for a breath of fresh air, with new perspectives, boundless energy, and often a solid technology and social media comfort level that can benefit your firm. These new players have not yet developed bad habits, so savvy managers can mold their skills to their firm’s needs. Apprentices can adopt best practices based on your direction, allowing you to transfer your high standards to them right from the start.

What they have learned in mortuary school provides a foundation of knowledge, many basic skills, and an overall perspective of our profession. The apprenticeship is where they learn from you how you want things done, standard operating procedures for your firm, and other valuable insights from those “in the know”. Watching and learning from dedicated professionals with experience serving families adds real value for them. And it is a wonderful opportunity for you to pay it forward because these apprentices WILL BE the Funeral Directors and Embalmers of the future. Without them, there is no future as we know it!

If you are keen to consider second-career funeral professionals, kudos to you! These folks can bring valuable outside experience to your team, and share perspectives that are valuable to those of us who are sometimes insulated within our own way of doing things. The lessons this group has learned in customer service, retail, medical, hospitality, and other fields will contribute positively to the overall health of your business.

In an ever-increasingly digital world, recent graduates tend to be more adept at navigating technological advancements, which can help you provide high-value offerings to families and your community. Apprentices are often quick to learn new technologies and can deploy or update critical services like software updates, live streaming, website updates, etc.

Across the board, compensation for funeral professionals has risen in the last few years due to the supply and demand imbalance in almost every community. So, if your budget is tighter due to a lower post-pandemic call volume or a “mix down” in services, early career professionals can help stretch that budget dollar even further. In addition, hiring an apprentice can be a quick and easy process. Graduating students are prepared for a change of scenery and are ready to jump right in! And if you offer housing as part of a benefit package, the decision to join your team can be faster for them, and beneficial for you.

Setting realistic expectations is crucial for apprentices AND the managers & other staff working with them. Many of the apprentices we have worked with have minimal work experience in funeral service and are therefore looking for practical knowledge about different funeral practices and techniques. Don’t be afraid to share the WHY you do what you do, not just the HOW. Be clear about expectations up-front, define what success looks like, and address any misunderstandings as they arise. As cliché as it may seem, “They don’t know what they don’t know”. You can teach them what they need to know to be successful. As more people retire, a new generation of funeral professionals will have learned how to be competent, confident funeral professionals from those who have demonstrated it over a lifetime.

IN THE LONG TERM… it is a given that we need knowledgeable, licensed individuals within the profession. But more importantly at a local level, YOU need someone well-versed in your firm’s practices and your specific community. That is a valuable asset to you today… and to the future owner of your business down the road. While the timeframe to licensure may vary by state, training apprentices in specific systems and integrating them into your local community can produce a tremendous benefit to your firm.

Our profession is seeing a growing number of mortuary school graduates annually; currently, that number is about 1,500 graduates, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education. So, firms have the chance to nurture talent and foster growth by utilizing this emerging talent pool. This involves providing a roadmap for career progression, from apprentice to funeral director to manager (and possibly, to owner).

Many funeral professionals who are unhappy in their current roles feel stuck and are looking for a consistent development process that assures their professional growth. By creating a supportive environment for apprentices, you are establishing a pipeline of skilled professionals and increasing the odds of retaining them once trained. Retaining key employees is critical for the long-term success and viability of any growing business. Future “A” Players start as promising but inexperienced apprentices somewhere…why not with you at your firm?

Apprentices coming in on the lower end of your compensation range give owners and managers the chance to recognize their efforts with raises, bonuses, enhanced benefits, and maybe even more flexible schedules, which younger employees value greatly. The apprentice who was treated well, trained in all areas, and mentored by a caring supervisor and fellow staff members will be more inclined to remain on your team and continue to provide superior service.

It’s time to recognize the value the right apprentice can bring, and not just as support staff, but as vital contributors helping to shape the future. Investing in apprentices isn’t just about meeting staffing needs; it’s also about safeguarding your local heritage and professional legacy.

If you need additional staff and are not doing so already, please consider the benefits and the immediate advantages a quality, competent apprentice can provide. If adopting available technologies and being more connected is on your to-do list, properly supervised apprentices can provide a high level of efficient and knowledgeable horsepower in that area.

This is a profession full of wonderful caregivers at the very core. The stories we hear every day demonstrate the true impact you are having on families in their time of need. Should we not be showing that same level of care to those entering the profession in their greatest time of need? The mortuary students and apprentices of today are where legacies begin, and investing in them ensures the continuity of our profession.


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