Guaranteed jobs: Mortuary schools see jump in enrollment amid funeral industry worker shortage

Colleges specializing in funeral service education are increasing enrollment amid a shortage of workers in the funeral service industry.

“The shortage is so severe right now that there’s a 90% placement rate for graduates of these programs,” said Leili McMurrough, program director at Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, Ill., the one of the oldest mortuary schools in the country dating back to 1911.

In 2021, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, new student enrollment nationwide in accredited mortuary science programs jumped 24% from 2020.

The overall percentage increase in student enrollment at the 58 accredited mortuary programs or institutions in the United States could be even higher this year, said McMurrough, who also serves as chair of the accreditation committee for the American Board of Funeral Service Education (AFBSE).

Randy Anderson, president of the National Funeral Directors Association, is acutely aware of the labor shortage and says colleges cannot produce licensed workers fast enough to meet the need for new hires.

Demand for funeral directors is particularly high, and the aging workforce has made it a race against time, Anderson said.

“There is an urgent need to replace those who have been in the profession for many years and are retiring,” he said. “Over 60% of funeral home owners said they would retire in five years. It’s a lot.

The NFDA currently has more than 20,000 members, and each state has its own learning and licensing requirements, Anderson said. Most states also require funeral directors to graduate from an accredited college or university program.

According to the latest government data, the funeral industry generates more than $16 billion in annual revenue. There were more than 18,800 funeral homes in the United States in 2021, mostly small private businesses, up from 19,902 in 2010, according to industry figures.

Young women, second-career researchers join the ranks

Women currently make up 72% of recent funeral service education graduates, according to the latest AFBSE figures. According to Anderson, “Until the 1970s, men dominated. Every decade since then, the number of women entering the profession has increased.”

And they are younger too. At Worsham, McMurrough said, the typical student is female between the ages of 24 and 29, but many are older applicants looking for a new career.

“There is great interest in this area from women, and it makes sense. Women absolutely have an empathetic bent and are perhaps better prepared to help families through a very difficult life event” , said Ed Michael Reggie, CEO of Funeralocity.com, an online resource to help families find a funeral home or crematorium provider that best suits their needs.

“Nobody plans to be a funeral director unless they have a relative in the business,” Reggie said. “But as a first career, it’s usually not an expensive degree. It’s a shorter program than a full college degree, and you can make $60,000 to $75,000 a year.”

Ellen Wynn McBrayer is a funeral director at Jones-Wynn Funeral Home and Crematorium, a third-generation family business with two locations in Georgia. His grandmother, Shirley Drew Jones, was the first woman to be a licensed funeral director in the state.

The majority of new students in mortuary science programs are now women.

McBrayer said her grandmother hoped more women would enter the profession.

“Newcomers and younger people are also more open-minded about not doing things the same way, but about customizing service to families’ wishes,” McBrayer said. “A funeral is not just a day in a lifetime but a lifetime in a day.”

Several factors are fueling the growing interest in the profession.

At her school, McMurrough said enrollment increased after Worsham began offering her program online two years ago. “It gave people who had other jobs but were also interested in the field the flexibility to be able to pursue it,” she said.

Worsham offers a one-year associate degree ($22,800 tuition) and a 16-month online associate degree program ($24,800 tuition). Eighty percent of the most recent cohort of students in the college’s online course were women, she said.

Rapid career advancement is another draw.

These aren’t six-figure jobs — the median salary for jobs in the funeral industry, such as funeral directors, was $74,000 and $48,950 for funeral directors, funeral directors and funeral arrangers in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But “you have the opportunity to go in just a few years from graduating from college to becoming a funeral director or even owning your own funeral home,” McMurrough said.

Not for everybody

The pitfalls are there too.

“Some areas of the profession have yet to catch up with other industries in terms of competitive salaries. It remains a challenge to recruit and retain workers,” said Anderson of the National Funeral Directors Association.

Another challenge is burnout.

“At the height of the pandemic, people across the industry were working nonstop, with no days off,” McMurrough said. “But you do it because you care.

Yet many new students said the pandemic has also influenced their desire to serve their communities, McMurrough said.

“So many people have experienced death over the past two years in ways they didn’t expect. Families couldn’t grieve the way they wanted,” she said. “In some cases, funeral home staff became the last to see those who had died in place of their own families. Those moments had an impact on people.”

Hannah Walker already has a job offer after graduating from her mortuary school program this month.

Hannah Walker, who graduated from Worsham this summer, is one of them.

“I certainly never planned on graduating from this program, but my grandfather opened my eyes for the first time,” said Walker, 31, who lives in Michigan. Her experience with her death from prostate cancer, before the pandemic, and her funeral helped her reframe what the experience might be for other families.

So, about two and a half years ago, Walker took the first step by calling several funeral homes and asking if she could shadow one of their employees to get some first-hand experience.

“I did it for almost a year and realized it was for me. I cared enough about myself to want to do this,” she said. Walker graduated from Worsham College on Friday and has a job waiting for her at the funeral home where she works in the shadows once she completes her apprenticeship and obtains her state license to practice.

“It’s not a career path for everyone,” Anderson said. “You must be attracted to it and the opportunity to help your fellow man and be satisfied with it.”

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