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Funeral director employment. . . where are we at? What can we do?

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A couple of things have happened in the last week that made me wonder about the state of employment in the funeral director world.  In the past week I just happened to meet a gentleman, whom I’m guessing is in his early 30’s.  Sitting next to this gentleman at a coffee shop I learned that he was a former funeral director who is now in school to earn his RN degree in nursing.

Then later in the week I had a discussion with a funeral service educator about the state of our education system and how it is set up as compared to what we perceive those who are thinking about entering the funeral service profession want and/or need.  Finally, I had a discussion with a colleague that started off about the state of business in death care but ventured into the discussion of finding “quality” employees.

To top that off I went back and looked over the National Funeral Director’s 2020 Expectations Study as it pertained to personnel.

I would venture to say that everywhere I looked or every discussion I had pointed to an indication that the availability of “Qualified Personnel” – however you want to define that term – is a major stumbling block in our profession at this time.  As a matter of fact, the NFDA Study I reference points out that 73.9% of respondents cited “the availability of qualified personnel as the greatest challenge facing funeral service”.  I will also point out that issue has overtaken the issue of “Decreasing Profit Margin” which held the top spot by 15 percentage points in 2016.

So, I would guess it is fair to say that funeral homes are having a hard time finding what they deem is “qualified personnel”.  The challenge that we in the death care sphere have is finding out why this is so.  Could it be about compensation?

The person I met at the coffee shop told me he “enjoyed being a funeral director” but it was a pretty all consuming job.  He mentioned he had to be a jack of all trades — removal, body preparation, arranger, conducter of funerals, do secretarial paper work, be on call, and the list goes on and on.  He also told me that as a nurse he will be trained for all kinds of work, but in general, he will be much more specialized — office nurse, hospital nurse, surgical nurse, emergency room nurse, home health nurse — as he selects a position.  He expects his life to be “more organized”. Finally, he believes he will start at a salary about $20,000 higher annually than he was making as a funeral director.

I’ve had the opportunity to own and operate a 300 call funeral home and also have had the opportunity to serve on the board – and as chairman – of a close to $50 million revenue non-profit senior independent living, assisted living, nursing care facility, home heath care, and hospice care company.  And, from what I know, he is probably correct in his assessment.  There is lots of opportunities – in differing ways – for nurses to use their degrees.

As I think about those differences between two professions – nursing and funeral directors – both are needed and play an important role in our society.  I wonder why is the perceived opportunity between the working situations and pay so seemingly different?  I think the answer comes in “following the money”.

Take a look at health care today and the money from so many sectors rolling into it.  It does not only come from the public sector with Medicare and Medicaid, but from private insurance premiums and payments. .  .and don’t forget the private equity money being put into all kinds of health care including pharmacy and medical product innovation.  Money being spent per capita in health care continues to go up and up.

Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

Compare that to the money coming into funeral service which is generally being paid by individuals for death care and memorialization. . . and because of our trends that have led to high cremation rates. . . it is trending to be a lower per capita dollar rate.

In essence, funeral businesses have to hold the line on salaries as the top revenue line may creep down.  A joint study by the NFDA and the American Board of Funeral Service Education was done to measure student expectations as they move into the work force.  The good news is that, “in general, (funeral) employers offer more benefits than students expect to receive.”

However, according to that same survey, “When it comes to anticipated annual salary, students expect to make 22% more than employers intend to pay.”

That brings me to my final point of this topic.  In my discussion with the funeral service educator he told me that there still are two very distinct type of students.  First of all, there is that high school graduate who wants the traditional college experience where the four years can lead to a Bachelor of Science degree.  Fine and great. . .good for the profession.

However, there is a second type of student, which the mortuary science profession has always had.  That is one who is late to discover the profession and wants to get credentialed in the quickest and lowest cost way possible.  Are we making sure that we have the pathways for this type of student – whether it be online learning or some other way – to get into our profession and trained at the lowest possible cost?  And, are we allowing them to get certified in some portion of the death care profession without getting certified in all phases?  Would that help?  Would that give us more applicants?

It is pretty apparent to me that there are some elements of the funeral profession that are just more difficult to operate business-wise than health care.  We don’t have federal money thrown at us for such things as “rural essential hospitals” or “rural essential airports”.  We have to figure out, on our own, how to operate in the black or we are gone.  And, we need good funeral directors to operate that way.  It is up to all of us to figure this dilemma out.

Like a lot of things, I don’t have the answers, but do like to bring up the questions.

Editor’s Note:  This article was written last Friday for publication on Monday.  Unfortunately, through a technical glitch, it was released to some readers last Friday afternoon.  We apologize if this is the 2nd time it came to your e-mail inbox.

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