Guaranteed jobs: Mortuary schools see surge in enrollment amid shortage of funeral workers

Colleges specializing in funeral services education are growing in number amid a shortage of workers in the funeral industry.

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

According to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, nationwide enrollment of new students in accredited mortuary science programs increased 24% in 2021 from 2020.

The overall percentage increase in student enrollment in the 58 accredited morgue programs or institutions in the United States could be even higher this year, said McMurrough, who also chairs the American Board of Funeral Service Education (AFBSE) Committee on Accreditation. .

Worsham College Program Director Leili McMurrough talking to her students.

Randy Anderson, president of the National Funeral Directors Association, is well aware of the labor shortage and says colleges can’t produce graduate workers fast enough to meet the need for new hires.

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

“There is an urgent need to replace those who have been in the business for many years and are retiring,” he said. “More than 60% of funeral directors say they will retire in five years. That is a lot.”

The NFDA currently has more than 20,000 members, and each state has its own apprenticeship 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. According to industry figures, there were more than 18,800 funeral homes in the US in 2021, most of which were privately owned, up from 19,902 in 2010.

Young women, second career seekers join ranks

According to the latest AFBSE figures, a whopping 72% of recent graduates of education currently constitute funeral services. Anderson said, “Until the 1970s, men dominated. Since then, the number of women entering the profession has increased every decade.”

And they are younger too. In Worsham, McMurrough said, the typical college student is a 24- to 29-year-old female, but many are older applicants seeking new careers.

“There is a great interest from women in this field, and it makes sense. Women definitely have an empathic tendency and may be better prepared to help families get 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 meets their needs.

“Nobody plans to be an undertaker unless you have a parent in the business,” Reggie said. “But if you’re in your career for the first time, it’s generally not an expensive degree. It’s a shorter program than a full college degree, and you can earn $60,000 to $75,000 a year.”

Ellen Wynn McBrayer is an undertaker at Jones-Wynn Funeral Home and Crematorium, a third-generation, family-owned company with two facilities in Georgia. Her grandmother, Shirley Drew Jones, was the first woman to be a licensed undertaker in the state.

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

McBrayer said her grandmother hoped more women would take up the profession.

“The new and younger people coming in are also more open-minded about not doing things the same way, but tailoring the service to what families want,” says McBrayer. “A funeral is not just a day in the life, but a whole life in one day.”

Several factors fuel the growing interest in the profession.

At her school, McMurrough said enrollment grew after Worsham began offering its online program two years ago. “This gave those 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 (tuition $22,800) and a 16-month online associate degree program (tuition $24,800). Eighty percent of the most recent cohort of students in the college’s online course were women, she said.

Rapid career progression is another draw.

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

Not for everyone

There are also pitfalls.

“Some areas of the profession are not yet lagging behind other industries in terms of competitive salaries. That remains a challenge in recruiting and retaining employees,” said Anderson of the National Funeral Directors Association.

Burnout is another challenge.

“At the height of the pandemic, people across the industry were working non-stop, with no days off,” McMurrough said. “But you do it because you think it’s important.

Still, many new students said the pandemic was also affecting their desire to serve their communities, McMurrough said.

“So many people have experienced death in ways they didn’t expect in the past two years. Families couldn’t grieve the way they wanted to,” she said. “In some cases, the funeral home staff were the last to see the deceased rather than their own families. These moments made an impression on people.”

Hannah Walker has already offered a job after graduating from her morgue program this month.

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

“I certainly never intended to graduate from this program, but my grandfather first opened my eyes to it,” says Walker, 31, who lives in Michigan. Her experience with his death from prostate cancer, before the pandemic, and his funeral helped her reframe what the experience might be like 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 firsthand experience.

“I’ve been doing it for almost a year and realized this was for me. I cared enough 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 will be in the shadows once she completes her internship and gets her state license to practice.

“This isn’t a career path for everyone,” Anderson says. “You have to be drawn to it and given the opportunity to help your fellow man and be content with that.”

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