How to Recruit the Best & Brightest: a Q&A with Mortuary Students
September 02, 2022
Hosted by Peyton Sanders and Natalie Chapman
Adam Gonzalez: Worsham College, Class of 2022
Danielle Emerson: Arapahoe Community College, Class of 2022
Roxana Echevarria: Miami Dade College, Class of 2024
Taylor Sabinash: John A. Gupton College, Class of 2023
Sarah Infinger: John A. Gupton College, Class of 2023
Brianna Fielder: Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, Class of 2022
We’ve heard from funeral directors across the country that staffing is a problem, but no one has ever said why.
Could it be that funeral homes are not posting jobs in the right places? Are internships and job offers different from what students thought they were going to be? Maybe funeral directors just simply aren’t putting themselves out there with students.
We hosted a webinar where we interviewed a group of mortuary students from all over the U.S. to have a deeper discussion of the next generation’s expectations of funeral service. Here are a few of our takeaways:
The key to finding good people, like the students on our panel, is by connecting with students early. That means funeral homes might have to do a little more training, but if they can get plugged into mortuary schools early there seems to be a pretty good chance of finding high-quality job candidates.
We’ve also heard from several young funeral directors, that even if they weren’t a part of a family business, may have gotten involved as early as high school. Giving people the opportunity to get in the door early can foster that love of the funeral profession that seems to be missing.
Lastly, it’s important to pay a decent wage, especially in relation to your area. But we’ve also noticed that in relation to the panel and our survey that other factors are just as important, if not more important than salary. If you can’t pay the wage that everyone is asking for, there are other things you can do to supplement that, whether it’s building up your culture or offering exceptional benefits.
See our survey for insights from 100+ mortuary students where we asked about different factors that would affect their decision about which funeral home to work in. Whether you’re hiring now or in the future, you’ll find these results interesting, and you might even learn something new!
See some of the important topics discussed during the webinar:
What's your expectation of using technology in a funeral home?
Brianna Fielder: With technology, I’ve kind of been on both sides. Where I was working, we used Passare a whole lot, along with other digital things to keep everything managed - especially in our prep area. I’ve also worked previously at a different firm where everything was handwritten. So far, I think being more involved with technology is the better way to go because then everyone has a way to double-check things from wherever they are. That’s been the main way we’ve been able to catch issues or discrepancies in task completion along the way.
How has school shaped your view of the future of your career in the funeral service?
Danielle Emerson: School showed me that there are so many different options out there and so many things to learn about funeral service. I know I'll have a secure job, and right now I'm really excited to jump right in and learn everything I need to do.
Adam Gonzalez: I would agree with Danielle. The encouragement I received while I was in school left me feeling fired up for the task at hand and provided perspective on job security and an honest opinion of where the industry is right now.
I came in with very little knowledge about the field. I’m not from a family firm or anything, and that’s kind of par for the course as far as I can tell. A lot of people are coming in with very little knowledge of the ins and outs, so just a basic understanding of how family firms operate versus a corporate firm was something I learned.
Natalie: Did you feel that same encouragement and inspiration from any internships or apprenticeships you’ve had, or just from the professors you’ve had?
Adam: My current employer I’ve worked for throughout my year in school, and I’m currently doing my internship there. My employer was a bit more realistic about the industry than the school was. I remember the general manager had a very candid conversation with me during my interview saying what the industry is really about and it threw me for a loop, which was a good thing. I needed to know what I was getting into. It worked hand-in-hand with the encouragement from school, basically the fact that this is a really wonderful, rewarding profession but it can also be a very difficult profession for several reasons.
Danielle: For me, it definitely came from my teachers. They were amazing and very encouraging. My current employer has also been very encouraging - there’s always room to grow. If I make a mistake we fix it and then the next time, I’ve learned how it’s supposed to be done that way I can keep improving.
What are you hoping for out of a future employer?
Sarah Infinger: For me, having a work environment that’s very positive, friendly, and supportive is probably the most important - even more so than what I’m getting paid. If the environment I'm working in is positive and encouraging, I’d get paid hardly anything for that, as opposed to someone who might pay me a lot, but their work environment is very toxic and they’re not helpful.
Brianna Fielder: I’m on the same page with that as well. Having somewhere I'm excited to go is very important to me. Somewhere that I’m not afraid to ask questions if I mess up on something minor because I know someone will help me correct it.
At the end of the day, I'm in the same boat as Adam. I don’t come from a family business - all my family thinks I'm weird for this. So, I can only learn so much from sitting in a classroom all day. Working at the firms that I have, I’ve learned two completely different ways of doing the same things. The fact that each firm is so different creates a learning curve that people don't always expect when hiring younger people and students that have worked in different places while they were in college
Survey results show that 81.4% of job applicants view company culture as a key factor. How are you fostering a strong workplace culture with your team?
What are you hoping to gain from future internships or what have you gained from previous internships?
Danielle Emerson: I had an internship through my online class that was helpful. I’ve been working at a funeral home for about 2.5-3 years now, but through that class internship, I became more confident taking calls, which is just a basic thing. I got to learn more about different cultures and the way they do things. As for my actual job I work at, that internship was able to tie into what I do at my actual job and help me continue to succeed there.
Roxana Echevarria: I have not done my internship yet, I’m doing it next year. What I’m hoping is that I can learn as much as possible. When I started my journey in the funeral industry and when I decided to go to college, I was thinking of being an embalmer - that’s what caught my interest.
As I got into college, one of my professors inspired me to look more into being a funeral director and an embalmer. So I’m looking to learn as much as I can about everything like how to talk to people, how to do first calls, and how to do removals because I’ve never had any experience with that.
A lot of funeral directors wonder where they should post jobs for new hires. What platform should funeral homes use to advertise job postings for funeral directors?
Sarah Infinger: I actually got my job through my first round of clinicals. I remember my teacher saying that a lot of places would reach out to the college for newly graduated students, but were not willing to have the students that were in school do clinicals, because they didn’t want to go through the hassle of teaching new students.
If you're near a mortuary college, reach out to that college and say you're willing to hire students and teach them. That will eventually translate over to a job, because it shows students you are willing to work with them and teach them. There are the obvious places like Indeed, but I think connecting with colleges is more important.
Taylor Sabinash: I would completely agree. We have had great opportunities through John A. Gupton, where different funeral homes and locations have reached out to our professors. I mean, we are located in Tennessee. Places from Kentucky, Georgia, and all over have reached out. Me being from North Dakota, that’s great, because I know I can expand to new places. It’s a great connection to have because your professors who know you personally can tell future employers a little bit about you.
How would you prefer that your coworkers communicate with you about tasks, service updates, etc.? Email, text, phone call?
Sarah Infinger: I like text, and where I work currently, we have a texting app called Slack that is sorted into different categories like cremation check-in, embalming discussion, or call dispatch for when we get first calls. I find that helpful because you can search in the app for certain names, or you can check to see things like, have they already checked into the crematory? Were they cremated and we boxed them up already? No, not yet.
It’s very helpful. Same with e-mail, it wouldn’t be a bad way of communication, I think I just prefer text because it’s easier. I ignore a lot of emails because I get so many.
Adam Gonzalez: Texting is probably the most efficient and economic way to communicate. At the firm I work for, that’s how we communicate everything. We’re not tech-savvy enough to use a fancy app like slack, but I do know it’s a good one to use. Anything from death calls, to who wants what for lunch, we’re always communicating via text during work hours.
Funeral directors are wondering where to find high-quality applicants. Many of you were recommended by professors we reached out to when building this panel, and we know you’re all high-quality students. How do you know an employee will have a good work ethic?
Taylor Sabinash: As far as John A. Gupton, they have a procedure where you have to make a certain GPA, and a few other things. There’s also a dress code. Not a lot of young professionals want to dress in a suit every day and so with that, a lot of people don’t choose to do it. One way to weed out the quality people is to see who is willing to do that every day. That’s a great aspect of our college specifically.
How do you expect you will be asked to dress while performing a service, performing an arrangement, or just getting work done around the office?
Brianna Fielder: When I was starting college in Cincinnati, the first funeral home I ever interviewed for told me I had to come into work every day wearing a skirt and heels - so I did not go there.
Everywhere else, I have been expected to do some quirky dress code thing. At my last firm, you always had to wear tights. That one was kind of annoying because I could never find them in my size, but it wasn’t as bad as having to wear heels and a skirt every day.
I like to be comfortable when I'm at work, especially if I'm doing removals. I don’t know about anyone else, but I could not do a removal in heels. I do like dressing more laid back on the days we don't have services, but I haven’t had that opportunity as much. I still like to dress nice though. I’m going there to work and to work hard - I’m not trying to be pretty, most of the time the things I'm doing aren’t pretty.
Danielle Emerson: When I first started, I wanted to wear dresses and stuff like that, and that got shut down really fast. Because, I mean, I have to go on removals and have to help with the crematory and prep room. I wear a lot more functional, nice clothes to look better while still being able to do my job.
Adam Gonzalez: I think it’s important to remember that being in a service industry we’re dressing for the people we’re serving, not dressing for ourselves. I think that's a good bottom line to think of when a funeral home owner or general manager is thinking about dress code.
Look outward in your community. The firm I work at is not necessarily a suit every day, but always a shirt and tie. That goes along with if someone came into the funeral home, they would expect us to be dressed that way. It’s not necessarily that you always have to be in a suit. Just think about the people you’re serving and how they would expect you to dress.
Dress code has been a hot topic in the business world, and many have dropped their professional attire. We thought funeral service wouldn't be far behind. Turns out:
What is your ideal on-call week or schedule look like? What is your expectation?
Adam Gonzalez: Something that my firm does and a lot of the firms in my area do, is think of things in terms of a 2-week rotation instead of 1 week. Instead of a 5-day work week, it’s 10 days. When you think of it that way, it gives you more flexibility. Every other week, you get a 3-day weekend. Right before that, you work 7 days in a row. You have to work weekends, it’s part of it. But, I think this can give you more flexibility and creativity when building a schedule.
Brianna Fielder: At the firm I started at, I was on call every night from the time I started to the time I quit. I wasn’t allowed to go 15 minutes from the funeral home unless it was for school, and I got paid 500 dollars a month. That’s not okay.
I almost dropped out of school, because I wasn’t going to make it. The fact that I'm graduating now means a lot more to me because of that struggle I had to go through.
At the firm I currently work at, we have the luxury of being a larger company with a rotational schedule, so we usually have two people on call a night and they switch back and forth between evens and odds. So far, that’s been my favorite rotational schedule. It avoids burnout if not the same person having to go on every single call, and you’ll have to call trade a lot less.
Everyone on the call is curious to hear what you expect to make right out of school. I do want to mention that all of us are in different parts of the country so say what your area is like, what you expect for a starting salary, and what contributes to that.
Sarah Infinger: I go to school in Nashville, Tennessee, but I live in Clarksville. It’s about an hour away, but is still a fairly big city. Taylor is from North Dakota, and I would expect a funeral director in Nashville would make more than a funeral director in North Dakota. I think any firm that’s hiring would need to look at what the places around them are offering.
For example, if you want me to help you move your funeral home from paper to digital, I expect you’re going to pay me a decent amount. At least a livable wage, or really, above a livable wage.
If I have an education that I spent thousands of dollars on, I should get paid a decent amount. I do think it varies depending on the area though. Somewhere like Nashville, I would expect around $65,000 starting, whereas somewhere like North Dakota, maybe more like $50,000 a year. I think you have to understand your market and try not to insult people with your offer, because we are college educated.
Taylor Sabinash: To add to that, I think benefits are a great add-on. One of my friends received benefits that included a paid-for gym membership. That's unique! I get they want us to be active in the community, like Lions Club and things like that, but you really need to look at the people you’re hiring and what they would be interested in having.
Adam Gonzalez: The benefits are what I was going to mention. My salary is lower than just about all my classmates graduating with me, but the benefits package I receive is better. I mean this is my second career, and this is something I didn’t find in my first career (education). I know I have a better benefits package than just about any teacher in the Chicago area.
This made the salary an easier pill to swallow. But besides that, my firm uses a removal service, so I never have to go out at night if I don’t want to, and we have 3-day weekends as I mentioned before. I don’t work any more or less than the funeral directors as an apprentice - they treat me as an equal. All of these things make it worth taking a lower salary, because I’d rather have a better quality of life and make less money than hate my life and make more money.
I would say what you’re offering your employees that’s going to make their quality of life better is just as important of a question as how much you should pay them.
Our survey indicated 46.4% of the respondents indicated high starting salary is more or most important when searching for a funeral service position. 11.3% indicated it was the most important. With 57.7% total, there's an indication that paying new candidates well is very important, but maybe not the most important factor.
To wrap up, how important is it that your leader and coworkers are open and receptive to new ideas, change, and creativity?
Taylor Sabinash: Oh, it is very important, because they’re not in school learning what's up and coming. For things like social media, older directors would probably disagree with having a Facebook page for their funeral home. But, think of it more like marketing. You can post your services online and get your name out there more. Being open to new ideas is great, but taking the next step and possibly trying one now and then could boost a lot of things.
Sarah Infinger: Some funeral directors complain that our generation is doing things like making TikToks about the industry - and don’t get me wrong, some TikToks are vastly inappropriate. But, America has such a death phobia, and I think it can help a lot of people to hear others their age or a little bit older than them talk about the realities of cremation, embalming, and what happens in the funeral industry instead of it being this secretive thing.
Danielle Emerson: Making services personal is just amazing. I love seeing families bring in pictures and things their loved ones enjoyed during their life. The families are going to be looking back on this service, and it needs to be what they want it to be - as long as it’s attainable. I think at the end of the day it's what the family wants that is going to create the most positive experience.
Brianna Fielder: I loved the opportunities I’ve had to bring things up to funeral directors, or supervisors, and have them actually listen to me. Even if it was something they didn’t end up going with, just knowing that someone was receptive to what I was saying was cool. It meant even more to me when we got to do it; it was one of the greatest feelings.
Roxana Echevarria: In a lot of my classes, my professor has made it a point to invite people from different companies that do unique keepsakes. They would all mention how they have a hard time connecting with funeral homes. Either the firm didn’t know of them, or they would be suspicious of their offerings. It would be great if funeral homes were more open to the idea of giving a variety of options to their families.
It may not always seem like it, but with a new class of mortuary students enrolled in programs each year, there are still plenty of young funeral professionals out there looking for the right place to work. Read Tips to Make Your Funeral Home a Great Place to Work for more ways to create a positive workplace environment.