By Gabriel Ngo
“Culture is defined and created from the top down, but it comes to life from the bottom up” – Mike Smith, former NFL head coach (Atlanta Falcons), 2008 Coach of the Year
You are probably already thinking that this quotation is all well and good, but who has time for culture when your business is short a licensed staff (or two if you operate a larger business) and the other licensed staff is on vacation this week? I get it. Businesses across all professions and industries have been battling staffing shortages and talent retention challenges. To that extent, funeral home businesses are no exception…and not only part of the rule, but has licensing (and in some states, dual licensing) requirement issues to have to contend with when attracting, hiring, and retaining talent. Hopefully by the end of this article, I can get you to see how this quotation not only applies to you, but that you can strategically focus on developing hourly and/or part-time staff to fulfill your staffing challenges and bring your culture to “life from the bottom up.”
So, what has led us to where we are today in 2023 where finding and keeping qualified licensed staff is such a challenge? Was it Covid/Pandemic? Is it these “younger generations” just not wanting to work as hard or work as long? Or was it because of the Pandemic that forced companies in general to allow work-from-home arrangements and now none of us can put the “genie back in the bottle?” Perhaps, it was all of the above and then some other issues not listed. The funeral profession has always had to contend with finding and keeping good licensed folks for adequate staffing requirements—it is just worse now with the influence from all of the above. What we do is truly noble, invocational work that is intrinsically rooted in serving others. But it certainly is not glamourous in any way, and the rest of the world sees it as such a niche trade that most people do not think about (unless called upon in some way) when contemplating a career (or career change).
The two main areas that have always been real issues for the funeral profession include:
- Sourcing quality candidates leading to hiring challenges, and
- Increasing skill gaps driving hiring challenges.
Let’s face it: sourcing and hiring qualified, licensed candidate in the funeral profession is a zero-sum game that has almost been on par with competing for calls—the licensed funeral director you hire is one less licensed director that I (or another competitor) can hire in any particular market or community. And with the limited “headcount” of qualified candidates, this zero-sum hiring game acts as a “double-whammy” for businesses missing out on hiring of that one candidate. With respect to the increasing skills gap/skills shortage within the profession, this only further compounds the challenge. For example, the high-value licensing requirements in the state of Ohio (where in addition to mortuary school and the licensing requirements there is also the four-year college degree requirement) has had the unintended consequence of stringently excluding possible service talent from other service-based work from entering the profession—and thus, making sourcing and hiring qualified candidates with the necessary licensing and skills extremely difficult. In states like Arkansas, there has been a reduction of apprenticeship time requirements (from twenty-fours months down to eighteen months) in an attempt to help alleviate licensed staffing challenges for funeral businesses.
So, what are some ways that you can think differently, approach things differently, and then act differently in order to overcome these two main challenges when it comes to sourcing and hiring qualified, licensed candidates? After all, you cannot expect a different outcome if you just continue doing the same things. Here are three keys that we will subsequently explore a little more in depth:
- Focus more on soft skills and attention to service ethos
- Employ employee development and long-term strategies
- Streamline your hiring process
Soft Skills Focus In Sourcing & Hiring
While this is not necessarily a new idea, identifying potentials locally and outside of the profession that you might have interacted with on more than one occasion who demonstrate thoughtful, caring, and service-oriented characteristics that perhaps are aligned with your own service ethos could truly be a great external pool for sourcing and recruiting candidates. This person could be someone at the car dealership, automotive parts store, hospital/doctor’s office, and/or restaurant. Coming from that idea rooted in mantra of hiring for attitude and training for skill, the biggest investment here for funeral home owners is one of shifting one’s paradigm to, not just actively, but proactively recruiting for your business’ needs and wants.
Despite the growing sentiment that folks nowadays just do not want to work as hard, there are quality people and talent across all lines of work that may very well align with your excellence in service and care beliefs—you just have to hunt to find them these days, now more than ever. And this takes re-disciplining your own thoughts, beliefs, and actions in order to make it happen successfully. Besides, the current model in finding qualified, licensed candidates is not widely or successfully working, so what do you have to lose in changing your approach or changing how you do things? Furthermore, being consistent with your own behaviors of proactively recruiting and making constant sourcing efforts is also very key to how successful you will be at sourcing and hiring based on a candidate’s soft skills.
Employ Employee Development & Long-Term Strategies
And so deliberately and consistently being “on the hunt” for candidates with soft skills fit for your business opens up the “talent pool” for you and may address a wider source of candidates, but what about the licensing requirements? This is where the “brave new world” that we live in requires you to have to be more strategic in how you properly incorporate your human resources. Hiring qualified, non-licensed hourly or part-time staff offers greater flexibility for you to cover hours and manpower, but now you should also have a plan for developing the staff (at least particular members) by encouraging them to obtain the requisite licensing (either funeral director’s license, embalming license, or both). Budget and build room into your expenses the necessary employee developments costs, such as offering to pay for their mortuary school (or partially) with some exchange in terms of their employment commitment to you and your business.
So for example (because I am in and out of automotive parts stores on multiple occasions), if I identify an Auto Zone representative who has on a number of occasion helped me and impressed me with their customer service, level of care/attention to detail, or background (former military for example), I would casually educate this person on what I or my funeral business does and the functions of service we provide to the community. Let’s say that I succeed in persuading this John Doe from Auto Zone to join my staff as a full-time, hourly funeral assistant/ambassador. The next step in my strategic plan is to encourage and develop John to further his education and skills towards becoming licensed. If John accepts, he signs a contract with me (you can always have your attorney draft a simple agreement) where I offer to pay for his mortuary school related expenses in exchange for a mutually acceptable employment commitment (two or three years) in return. From a contractual standpoint, there would be “clawback” provisions where John would have to pay me back a pro-rated amount for every year that he might not fulfill as a licensed funeral director with my business (i.e. 33% of the total mortuary school related expenses for each year he does not fulfill in a three year commitment).
Sure, you will have to involve an attorney to draft such an agreement as well as possibly enforce its breach if an employee leaves before their commitment time is satisfied. But there are a few huge advantages as well. Firstly, you are providing development for your staff, and that makes you very possibly stand out from your competition—not to mention that many people still do value and appreciate your willingness to continue investing in them. Secondly, you will have a strong influence on how this employee learns and develops under your tutelage and in your methodology or culture. And lastly, you are directly addressing a huge area of need related to staffing shortages in a two-pronged approach: first by opening up and widening the source of qualified candidates, and next by developing them over a mid-to-longer term when building your licensed staff needs. There are a few funeral home operations in Texas where I have seen them be wildly successful at executing this, and they do not have the same work shortage issues once they have committed to and invested in strategically sourcing, hiring, and developing staff in this manner that the majority of other operators still face across the nation.
Streamline Your Hiring Process
This last section may not be connected to the two strategies above in that you can execute this one independent of whether you employ the two strategies above or not, but it is still important on its own because it may help you not miss out on a qualified candidate by simply having time be on your side. However, streamlining your hiring process still takes deliberate purpose and focus, just as hunting for soft skill candidates and strategically developing your staff both require. How many times has this happened to you over the past two or three years? By the time you are ready to make an offer to a licensed candidate that you liked, this candidate informs you that he/she has already accepted a similar role at one of your competitors.
Therefore, the purpose to streamlining your hiring process is to remove bottlenecks in your current hiring process, speed up the process, and decrease the time period between when you (and/or possibly another one of your key person[s]) interview this candidate and when you make an offer of employment. There is a saying when working on buy/sell transactions, that “time kills all deals.” Well, the focus here, in what is essentially a transaction to hire a new employee, is to shorten time by streamlining your process so that time does not kill your deal for a new hire. In today’s environment, you truly do risk losing out on a qualified candidate if your hiring process is too long. Here are a few things you can deliberately do to streamline your hiring process:
- Reduce the hurdles for interviewing candidates – this involves streamlining potential multi one-on-one interviews into panel interviews for your main stakeholders so that the candidate(s) is not having to come back a second or third time. Less hurdles for the candidate also reduce time for you in having to schedule different rounds of interviews.
- Remove/reduce bottlenecks on your end – if you have one or two other partners or stakeholders, actively ensure that everyone is committing to what is now a must in recruiting differently and hiring quickly. Families come first in what we do, but even if you have to reschedule, ensure that your other stakeholders/interviewers can commit to the rescheduled time so that you have removed any bottlenecks on time for you and hurdles for the candidate(s).
- Standardize your background checks and reference checks – if you have historically done this yourself in-house, perhaps it is time to outsource this to a third-party who specializes in this function. Sure, it might be an added expense but if it reduces your process timeline and improves your hiring because you no longer lose out on qualified candidates due to the time it takes, then consider this expense well-spent.
While these things may sound simple to do, it takes focus and purpose to deliberately change behavior, and we all know how our schedules can sometimes feel like we are herding cats. So, even the three aforementioned bullets take commitment and dedication in adherence.
In summary, the combination of focusing on soft skills for your recruiting, employing strategic employee development and training to bridge any gaps between non-licensed and licensed staff, as well as streamlining your hiring process will help you build a new but solid foundation for you to continue to build upon for the future. It is this foundation which you have achieved in building that will allow and nurture your culture that will be driven from the bottom up for your team and business to thrive for many years to come.