Marie Antoinette and Funeral Students, "Let Them Eat Cake."
It has been a few years since I was a student but with this article, I aim to convey the feelings of managers in regards to taking a student; and the feelings which many students have disclosed to me about their new career. I hope to bring understanding to both roles by providing clarification, so we can avoid a further scarcity of employees, which has already begun.
There is a shortage of funeral directors and embalmers in the funeral industry. Every year there are numerous applications for the funeral service program but few students graduate, because they don't get a practicum. Fewer still, continue within the industry once entering the job market, due to unfair working conditions and poor wages.Unless there is a change, I foresee an increase in burnout, resulting in a higher number of professionals leaving the industry prematurely.
A funeral home startup is costly. Owners have to put everything into their business. Even if a company has been in the family for a hundred years. It is their name and their livelihood, and a student can be a big gamble. Many times, owners feel that taking a student is a liability. Funeral homes are typically busy and already short staffed. Employees don't want to spend the time explaining job tasks which are second nature to them. Training takes a lot of extra work and constant supervision.
There is the constant worry that a student could disclose incorrect information to a family. We all agonize about an intern using too much pressure or the wrong chemical if left unattended while embalming, causing disfigurement to the deceased. Often the student is given 'non-liable' tasks at a funeral home, such as washing cars, cutting grass, building maintenance, and shoveling snow. Sometimes this becomes 90% of their work day. This can cause long standing employees to become complacent and lazy, since they now have someone to perform these duties. These employees are saying, I had to do it, its part of the job. Which is true, but often those employees were paid a living wage and there schooling was paid for by the funeral home. Today, we are short staffed with a bunch of old timers saying to students "let them eat cake."
Many students believe that with the shortage of workers, they will be able to get a practicum in the city they live in, which is usually not the case. Moving to a small town for over a year is not something anyone considers when applying for school. It is not uncommon to be uprooted from friends and family in order to get the necessary practicum and intern hours to become licensed. And then you are lucky if that practicum is paid.
If a student is full time and unpaid, or even under paid, this can build resentment. Far too often, I have heard stories of students performing job tasks which had nothing to do with the funeral home or their education. Some specific examples included baby-sitting and residential rental property maintenance. It's no wonder so many choose to leave before they get started.
New funeral students rarely understand the weight their image carries and the lifestyle change necessary in our industry. They don't consider that their sleeve tattoo, or that high school photo on Facebook, partying, can get your application for a practicum thrown out, thus losing everything they have worked so hard for. They're taking out big loans, believing high grades will get them a practicum. They are oblivious to the generational values of managers, colleagues and clientele.
Students who have taken the funeral service courses, feel they should be given trust to do the valuable tasks they have been studying for. They have made sacrifices by leaving their life behind and moving. They have paid a student loan of $20,000 per year, trying to make it through school. They feel they have invested so much, now here they are: washing cars and cutting grass, all for a McDonalds-level salary. How much more do they need to prove?
I have been asked: “Will it always be this bad?” For many, it probably will be. Until the industry changes, or until they have put in a solid 10 years. I always tell interns to plan on marrying rich. Students who put up with it long enough, are gradually allowed to work in the prep room and make arrangements. Too often however, while the responsibilities increase, the pay scale does not.
Employers sometimes feel they have done enough by taking on the responsibility of having a student. It is indeed an investment, but you have the opportunity to invest back: to cultivate the best, most skilled employee for your business, because you will become their role model. Should you decide to do your company the favor of training someone, you will leave a legacy of knowledge. By taking a student you can help prevent industry burnout, by setting up that future generation. The industry has a high level of aging employees who plan on retiring. So don't waste your opportunities.
I want to encourage mentors and managers to get off your phone; stop doing crosswords, stop browsing Facebook, get off Linkedin, during work hours. Stop using a student as a reason to negate your responsibilities. Teach. Impart wisdom. Start building the confidence and providing the tools, this new professional needs to succeed. You might get to wash less cars, or cut less grass, but most importantly you are helping to ease your own burden and stress. Nobody wants to operate on a skeleton crew of untrained professionals. Together, with some awareness and effort, we can prevent short staffing and burnout by bringing new lasting faces into our industry.
Managers are asking, "Why would I train someone who is eventually going to leave?"
As Richard Branson said, "Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they want to stay."
Even a small wage increase, which follows new responsibility will encourage your employee to stay. A small amount of leadership is all it takes for a student to admire you. You are the expert; you are their mentor.
Humility is key. We practice it with our families but not often enough with our employees. Funeral home owners and managers need to recognize that even though it's a lot of effort, a student intern is a blessing. They are full of fresh ideas and perspectives. We are lucky, people want to help in our industry and fill the need. We should feel privileged to train them and leave a legacy of our skillset and knowledge.
If you do this, your funeral home will probably never be understaffed again. Your employees will respect you and want to work hard for your company. Your families will recognize that the staff at your funeral home, love their job and that will be reflected in the service provided.