Recent Developments in Attracting New Talent to the Funeral Services Industry

By Ann Heinz, JD, CDEI, GSI
May 12, 2023
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The funeral services industry’s difficulty attracting new talent may be easing as several recent efforts seem to be gaining traction. The American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) reports a significant increase in enrollment in college and university programs focusing on funeral service and mortuary science education. Enrollment has jumped by almost 25% since 2020.  

In an industry that has been male dominated for years, the ABFSE also notes that 72% of recent graduates in the field are women. Graduates are also seeing high placement rates. Worsham College of Mortuary Science Program Director Leili McMurrough recently told CNN their graduates have a 90% job placement rate  

This high placement rate reflects an urgent need to replace an aging workforce in the funeral services industry nearing retirement. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), over 60% of funeral home directors are expected to retire within the next five years. Nearly three-quarters do not have a succession plan for their business.    

Even with rising enrollments, demand is expected to outpace supply when it comes to new talent. Several colleges, organizations, and mortuary professionals are being proactive in their attempt to spark interest in the field, offering a range of new programs and approaches to attract new professionals.  

College Funeral Services Program Enhancements

Southern Illinois University in Carbondale recently became the first U.S. school to offer an on-site crematory in its mortuary science and funeral service degree program. SIU is just one of six such programs in the country. Students who graduate from SIU’s mortuary science and funeral service program will also be recognized by the Illinois comptroller’s office as a certified crematory operator.   

Mortuary science and funeral service degrees like SIU’s typically focus on a mix of science and humanities courses—not just biology or chemistry courses reviewing restoration and preservation techniques, but courses in psychology examining mourning, others on ethics and regulations, even dipping into marketing and accounting. 

Easing Restrictions on Apprenticeships

A new law in Kansas enables funeral homes to offer six-month embalmer apprenticeships before attending mortuary science school.  

State license requirements for embalmers previously required a year-long program attendance, passing a national board examination, and a 12-month apprenticeship with a licensed embalmer. This new law lets future professionals split the embalmer training apprenticeship to reduce the time it takes to get a degree and license as part of the embalmer continuing education process.  

Easing legal requirements, such as allowing funeral homes to train apprentices before they attend mortuary school, may be one solution to attracting new talent. Such apprenticeships would provide potential workers with real-life experience to help them determine earlier whether this is a career they want to pursue.  

Expanding Observation and Volunteer Hours

In-school degree requirements typically require observation or volunteer hours for graduation. But seeking these positions can be challenging for students.  

Funeral directors may want to consider making it easier for students to observe. This helps students achieve their requirements while also providing additional opportunities for future recruitment. The more exposure the field has, the more interest, and the better the industry becomes. This is true for any industry.  

Funeral home operators may also want to consider offering incentive programs for current employees, such as cash bonuses or extra paid time off for mentoring students.  

Focus on Employee Retention

The job of a funeral director and others working in the funeral service industry is mentally taxing and stressful. Caring for grieving families on a daily basis takes its toll. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among professionals is 20% higher than normal in the funeral industry. In one study, more than 28% of those in the industry surveyed met the criteria for PTSD.  

Burnout and fatigue were only worsened by the COVID pandemic, creating additional stress and mental health challenges that pushed many professionals out of the industry.  

 Today, industry leaders are focusing on reducing stress and providing resources to manage mental health in a concentrated effort to retain workers. Expanding benefits packages include wellness and preventative health benefits, expanded paid time off, and more flexibility in scheduling.  

Paying for College & Online Funeral Continuing Education

Tanya Scotece, Professor of Funeral Service Education at Miami Dade College and a licensed funeral director, suggests providing stipends for initial training and continuing education (CE). Funeral CE and embalmer CE provide opportunities for advancing skills and accelerating career paths while helping to recruit and retain workers.  

Scotece also recommends funeral home owners facing labor shortages consider expanding their hiring pool. Finding employees with the right skills and attitude proactively, then paying for their education and continuing education, will not just help the industry, but provide a succession plan many sorely need. Colleges offering mortuary science and funeral service degrees are a great place to begin recruiting. 

Relaxing Dress Codes

A call for a more relaxed dress code is evolving slowly in the funeral services industry, though most common when attracting younger mortuary school graduates who may not feel comfortable with a formal dress code   

This may become more of a trend as millennial consumers are often opting for less traditional funerals and burials and gravitating towards cremation and celebrations of life. As one generation retires and another assumes leadership, one part of attracting new talent is cueing in to emerging trends, which open new perspectives that could lead to more innovations.  

Attracting New Workers to the Funeral Services Industry

With the funeral industry having a challenging time attracting employees, the situation only gets more dire as more retirements loom. Already in some states, there are more openings for funeral directors than there are licensed funeral directors.  

There is no easy solution to the challenge. It will take a concerted effort across the industry to attract and retain quality employees for the next generation of funeral service professionals.