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Will the Workforce Be There

On Friday I was lucky enough to get to go through what has became one of the funnest days of the year for me.  For the 4th straight year I was selected via my position on the University of Minnesota Board to participate in the commencement exercises for the school’s graduates of Mortuary Science program.

In Minnesota, that program is our state’s only mortuary science curriculum and ends with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mortuary Science.  The commencement ceremony is like no other in the school simply because the connections between the Department of Mortuary Science, its alumni, and the commercial death care establishments in the state are so strong.  The commencement becomes an annual gathering of all things that are funeral service.  The afternoon was filled with discussion with school faculty, new graduates, and old friends.

Degrees were conferred upon 21 young men and women, who in my opinion, will go out in our field and perform admirably and continue to give service and compassion to families in need.  While these people will do great jobs, the idea that there were only 21 graduates when there has been over thirty in past years does concern me.  The director of the program mentioned to me that funeral service education numbers are down across the entire country.

We all know what that means going forward.  It means that the employment outlook for those graduates is very good, but for those that need educated workers in their funeral homes, it means that in the next several years, the help wanted signs will be out and those positions may very well be very tough to fill.  According to collegegrad.com, a career outlook web-site, there are 54,400 funeral service workers today.  The outlook, according to them, is that we will need 57,400 funeral service workers by 2026 — 8 years away.  That’s about a 5.5% increase – and quite frankly – with the number of 55+ aged funeral service workers today who may be contemplating retirement, indicates to me that we could well exacerbate the shortage of quality funeral service professionals that is present currently.

I write a lot about the business and finance of funeral home acquisitions.  I don’t see any shortage of people who want to own funeral homes – but I really do get concerned about who will be the professionals on the front lines for these businesses.  Here are a couple of issues that I have thought of – that are neither good or bad – but in my opinion lead to the shortage of people going into funeral service.

  1. The Decline of Structured Services — We talk about it as nauseum on here and in funeral circles.  I relate this to the “Direct Cremation” clientele.  I’m fine if a family chooses this as they have that choice.  One thing that hit me on Friday, however, was that I talked to two graduates who chose funeral service as a career because of a loss in their family during their formative years.  Both of these students told me that, “Seeing what a funeral director does to help a family during this time changed their career choices.”  My concern is that with direct cremation and no services, a growing group of young people in their formative years never get a chance to see what a funeral director does.
  2. A Strong United States Economy — Funeral service, like some other occupations, enjoys a counter-cyclical educational process in relation to the U.S. economy.  By that I mean when the economy is strong and employment is somewhat easy in many cyclical professions, people do not think about funeral service careers.  However, when the economy goes south and people are out of work or job prospects for young people are not real encouraging, people turn to funeral service as a career simply because they believe they will always be needed because death is inevitable.  A drop in mortuary science students is not improbable at this point in time because you could argue that the U.S. economy, for the last 8 years, has been as strong as it has been in the last generation.

So, where am I going with this?  I really don’t know, but I do know that a career in funeral service has rewards like few others and we all need to find ways to expose the young people in our communities to the benefits of such a career.

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