Published in the July 2020 Issue of Memento Mori
By Joseph Finocchiaro, EJD, CFSP, LFD
Reading the industry periodicals that come across my desk, I see plenty of wonderful information that I share with my students regarding restoration and embalming, regulatory compliance, and the benefits of being a caring, compassionate professional. There is a wide variety of topics presented to the modern funeral practitioner in our industry publications, but there is a single most important, but commonly underutilized, item in the repertoire of a funeral service establishment. It is known by several names across the United States: internship, trainee, externship, residency, or apprenticeship. This is the period of time where the Mortuary Science graduate spends about a year working under the supervision of a fully licensed individual or individuals. In Florida, we call this the “internship.”
Generally, a newly hired employee should go through an initial orientation to acclimate him- or herself to the goals of the business, fellow employees, and standard operating platform. Part of this initial employee orientation will be Occupational Safety and Health Administration–mandated training as well as any other state or federal training to satisfy regulatory compliance requirements.
Next, the employee may begin shadowing another employee in the workplace for practical and limited hands-on activities, which allow the new employee to find a unique, comfortable way of applying what he or she has learned.
Finally, an employee is cut free of the “new hire tether” and becomes an active participant in the day-to-day operation of a business, while assuming the responsibility of the designated job; but the employer retains a 60– to 90-day period in which performance will be reviewed. At the conclusion of this time, the employee leaves probationary status and continues in a position with the firm or he or she is released from service. All employees are investments in a business; and the unfortunate truth is some investments do not turn out as expected.
With the demand for funeral directors ever increasing, we may feel that we need to ensure a quality training experience and proper internship experience, but that they will get it “on the job” or “as they do it” due to labor shortages. Orientation, job training, and professional development are all separate processes, and while they are important in a day-to-day operation, they are even more vital when it comes to interns.
Training for More than Just a Job
To say that interning and training are the same would be devaluing the concept of the internship. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, an intern is “an advanced student or graduate usually in a professional field gaining supervised practical experience” while a trainee is “one being trained especially for a job.”
In the 2019–20 Directory of Accredited Programs, the American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) states: “In 2018 there were over 5,500 students enrolled in funeral service education. Approximately 2,350 are new students.”
In 2019, I reported to the ABFSE during my annual reporting that 84 percent of new students were admitted to my program with no prior experience working in the industry. If such a percentage is consistent among mortuary schools in the United States, on-the-job orientation, job training, and professional development are becoming all the more crucial.
Funeral service is more than a job. I hear terms such as “vocation” or “calling” used regularly in texts and articles. We should not be training our interns to do “jobs.” We should be developing them into professionals. We are training them not in the rudimentary “hit tab to go to the next field” style that they learned in previous employment, but to show them the value and necessity of a statement such as, “Your father sounds like a wonderful person, tell me more about him,” and how that statement can impact their professional development as well as their firm’s bottom line.
An internship is a time and monetary investment for a firm. Too often, interns are regarded as “low budget labor” that can fill in the blanks between licensed funeral director/embalmers and part-time help. This results in what is known in the biz as a missed opportunity.
Firms may feel that transferring bodies between chapels and answering the phones are an intern’s primary duty while he or she observes the day-to-day actions. The problem is, they can’t observe phone calls and also drive a vehicle to central prep to pick up the case at 5:00 pm.
Funneling interns into a standardized routine of support chores, traditionally performed by part-time or unlicensed help, only results in a licensed employee with mastery of only those functions. If you routinely review the funeral contracts completed by a recently licensed director and notice that his or her performance is inferior to the more seasoned counterparts, and you feel further training and development are necessary, a question to ask yourself would be how much training and development have you actually provided?
The Role of Mortuary School
There is a strong inclination to have mortuary schools produce “job ready” applicants. This, of course, is beneficial to firms since rudimentary training has been done at the educational level and refinement can occur at the firm. The problem with this theory is that mortuary schools have never been the sole or even the best provider of on-the-job practical experience because… wait for it… they are schools.
Every seasoned funeral director I have ever met who ran ambulances in the 1950s and 1960s was nearly fully functional as a funeral home employee prior to attend-ing mortuary school where they received their “book learnin.”
In fact, I was told that in order to even apply to mortuary school, a firm had to provide a letter of recommendation and send it to Florida to obtain a letter of approval to attend mortuary school. My own experience attests to the fact that I didn’t learn valuable job skills from my alma mater during my time as a mortuary student; I learned those skills on the job. That isn’t to say that educators and schools are not doing their best, but 200 hours of practicum does not compare with 2,000 hours per year of gainful employment. It is unrealistic to think that schools can take the place of an actual employer.
Below are three common types of interns that we can encounter in our funeral service environment, along with advantages or disadvantages commonly associated with them. This allows you, the manager or owner, to create proper on-boarding and professional development for an employment candidate.
The “No Experience” Intern
As an educator, I encounter, with alarming frequency, persons who want to be funeral directors because “it’s cool,” they just want to “embalm,” or any plethora of reasons with no prior exposure to funeral service. The most I can do as a faculty mentor is provide realistic expectations of the industry, suggest volunteering at a funeral home, or secure a part-time job in funeral service to allow them to make educated decisions on whether it is the right field for them.
Students who graduate and seek internship without any prior experience will obviously require the most hands-on development from you, the manager/own-er of a business. Firms that are crunched for time in getting a functional “warm body” to sit across from a family will look at this as a severe impediment to hiring. This is a false notion: You have the ability to shape this intern into your ideal funeral professional.
Yes, there is a higher degree of risk involved and you will inevitably be required to invest substantial time into their development, but this allows you, as the proctor, unlimited potential to serve as a positive influence while coaching them toward success—or a negative influence causing harm and indifference toward funeral service. “No experience” does not equate to “no potential.”
Recalling a past statistic that over 80 percent of licensees do not last more than five years in funeral service; I’m willing to suggest that this type of licensee contributes highly to that percentage.
The “Partial Experience” Intern
This intern has spent time working at a funeral service establishment prior to full-time intern employment. He or she may have worked for you or a competitor doing any variety of jobs; but generally the transition in from support staff as a concierge, part-time associate, or apprentice.
If you started with a no-experience employee and have spent time training that person in rudimentary jobs, you will have an employee that is ready for development and should be subscribing to your business ethic. At this point, you should be expanding on a solid training base and refining the intern’s abilities in key areas. The disadvantage is he or she may be accustomed to another firm’s way of doing things or think that he or she is “more experienced” than the truth.
The advantage you receive from this level of employee is the competence in rudimentary job functions. These may or may not be a requirement of the new position; and you should spend ample time in acclimating them to their new responsibilities and position.
You may also need to replace unsatisfactory habits with ones that exhibit what you wish presented in your workplace. Ensure that previously learned skills meet or exceed your employment expectation.
The “Full Experience” Intern
This intern has been working full time in any variety of positions for you or a competitor. Typically, he or she is coming to you from the “pre-need” side of the business and is intimately familiar with meeting with families and should be capable of building relationships.
Your main function with this employee is to refine and perfect all areas that he or she has been involved in, as well as introduce the new employee to the differences between the old and new position. If you (or your competitor) have done the job well, this employee would potentially require less direct attention. This doesn’t mean a complete level of autonomy; it just permits you more leeway in allowing self-direction with tasks he or she already is comfortable with.
This is the most dangerous of the three categories, as you may be comfortable with this employee and allow this person to work “unchecked” without any further development. Completing a statement of goods and services is something that occurs on both the pre-need and at-need arrangement conference. The follow-up to that arrangement conference is very different on the at-need side.
Time is more of the essence, ordering product and ensuring timely delivery is essential. Be particularly careful to ensure this employee doesn’t fall through the cracks in training and development; especially if you need to correct ingrained unsatisfactory habits from another firm. Experience does not equate to excellence.
Now that we have a general idea of who you may recruit, let’s look at three general categories of training that should comprise a program to create a competent licensed professional or employee.
You need to orient every employee to your firm. The no experience, the fully experienced, or the re-hire who left and came back. Your orientation should be a standard that applies to all job descriptions in every category of employee. Completion of a job analysis (listing the jobs in your firm and their duties) will assist you not only in determining performance standards, but assist you in developing core qualities that EVERY employee should be able to complete.
It’s just as much about being able to lift 50 pounds as it is greeting people in person or on the phone and demonstrating written and verbal eloquence to promote one’s professional image. Your orientation should cover your employee handbook section by section and explain the mission statement of your firm and other areas of importance.
One of the biggest failures of an orientation is when a firm refuses to recognize the importance of the orientation in the employee development process and devalues it either by rushing someone through it or trying to compress it. Take the time to ensure the material is expressed to the employee or group of employees so that it conveys the necessary level of dignity and respect afforded to both the material being presented and their worth as employees.
Most importantly, once you have established these levels, you need to follow through and maintain them unilaterally in every area of operation. Employees noticing that you don’t “practice what you preach” leads to morale issues.
While orientation is standard for everyone, you should additionally have training programs established for each of your job titles. Thought put into your training pro-gram will provide you a strong framework upon which you can individually tailor the experience to each one of your employees. Training gives them the rudimentary and essential skills needed to function in your business and can include group training, shadowing, observation of role playing with seasoned employees, or even home assignments to reaffirm training.
It is imperative that the people training your employees be the absolute best in your firm and/or best industry professionals. If you need to train each person, then do so if you feel it is in your business’s best interest. You are paying wages to an employee; manage your risk and get the best return on your investment.
You may have an intern shadow a full-time, non-licensed concierge in order to experience how the doors should be opened and the phone answered. The new employee is building relationships with your existing staff and learning what it means to be a part of your team. In order to set realistic benchmarks, it is vital that you differentiate between core skills that one must possess for training and abilities that come through practice and experience. By handing them over to several competent employees, you can also gain feedback from your existing employees about the individual’s performance and demeanor that may influence your hiring decision.
Development is not training. Development is refining. Confusing training with development is a common error made by many businesses. If it was the same, we wouldn’t need two different terms. Development takes the rudimentary skills learned in training and expands on them significantly.
You train someone to open a door with a smile and say:
“Welcome to Smith Funeral Home, I’m Michael the funeral director who will be assisting you.”
You develop that into:
“Welcome to Smith Funeral Home. Are you Mrs. Smith? I’m Michael, we spoke on the phone. I’m so sorry about your husband. I know you’ve been up since this morning when you first called; may I offer you some coffee or some water?”
You develop the employee through role playing. Share how statistics show that the better the greet-ing, the easier it is to build rapport. You may have a seasoned funeral director or prearrangement family counselor spend time with your intern so that he or she can gain familiarity on how a greeting for an at-need arrangement and pre-need arrangement differ.
Good may be proper for a pre-arrangement where there may be no negative emotional connotation but the game changes when it is at-need. Encourage the employee during this time of transition: old habits can be hard to break.
The big difference between training and development: You cannot develop anything until someone is trained correctly. If an employee does not exhibit core skills from proper training, they don’t need development, they need to be trained.
In both training and development, there needs to be a common-sense factor and good judgment applied to each employee’s circumstance. No one said it was going to be easy; we shouldn’t be doing cookie-cutter funerals, so you shouldn’t be cookie-cutting your employee training and development.
If you have some employees who need to develop their door greeting skills and other employees who need to develop their phone etiquette, you should categorize them as such. You should further dedicate time to each individual so that you can address specific instances that may not apply to others.
“Corrective training” or “re-training” is exactly that: training. Development always reinforces training. It is much harder to change a habit once it is ingrained in an individual; train your employees correctly the first time, then continually develop them. Encouragement and consistency with expectations will allow them to recognize the investment you have made in their professional development.
As a manager or owner, you must apply the same type of competence and care that you would when performing an embalming analysis to determine the best course of action in preserving remains.
Joseph Finocchiaro is program coordinator of Funeral Service Education at Miami Dade. He is best described as an “edutainer” as he brings a passion for teaching and unique sense of humor to the classroom stage. Outside of class, he serves as a military program evaluator for the American Council on Education and is a member of the Curriculum Committee of the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Joseph has served as a chapter editor for funeral service textbooks and published articles in funeral industry publications at both the state and national levels. Joseph is a member of several Masonic bodies and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity. ©2013 Joseph R. Finocchiaro.