Brenden Clocher hopes to follow in the footsteps of his father, Robert, the office manager at Salem's Murphy Funeral Home.
Clocher works as an apprentice funeral director, for which he has obtained a license from the state. He's worked for the funeral home for three years, two of them as licensed apprentice. Those seeking to become a licensed funeral director need at least two years working in the field.
While the 32-year-old father of two has the experience to be become a funeral director, he lacks the college degree necessary to become licensed.
"This is as far as you can go," he said. He cannot go any further without an associate's degree. The drive to only schools with a funeral director program are located south of Boston. Combining a long drive with schooling, working full time and raising his family "wasn't feasible for me."
But last week, Clocher applied to a new program starting this fall at North Shore Community College, which for the first time is offering an associate in applied science degree funeral service program. The college hopes to run its first class with 28 students starting this September.
“We designed our program with substantial input from local funeral directors, including the Solimine family of Lynn, and we are very grateful for their interest, support and guidance,” the school's president, Patricia Gentile, said in a statement. The program was approved by the state Board of Higher Education as a financial aid-eligible program.
The two-year, 72-credit program is affordable, college officials say, with in-state tuition and fees of $16,500. The total tuition cost for 70 credits at the private FINE Mortuary College in Norwood, one of the two mortuary programs in the state, is $51,520, according to the college's website. The other program is run by Cape Cod Community College, with classes there starting in the fall on the campus of Bridgewater State University.
North Shore said three employment categories require a degree: embalmer, funeral service manager and "mortician," or funeral director. These three categories represent more than 2,700 jobs in the state. Over the next decade, the industry will need nearly 3,000 new employees to fill new positions, and for those employees who retire or leave the field. Average wages for embalmers, morticians and funeral service managers come in at $46,900, $68,500 and $91,600, respectively.
The North Shore program will combine classroom, lab and clinical training following the guidelines of the American Board of Funeral Service Education. Students are being prepared to take the National Funeral Service Board exam.
The program has also been built around the needs of the industry with its workforce in mind, said Karen Hynick, the community college's vice president for Academic Affairs.
To accommodate those already working in the field, the program is being offered only on Tuesdays in a hybrid format (some classwork is online, some is face-to-face), with most classes running for seven weeks instead of 15. This will allow students to concentrate on three classes at the same time.
Tuesday was chosen as a class day because there tend to be fewer funerals on that day, Hynick said.
The program, which will be led by Jamye Jeter Cameron, a third generation funeral director and embalmer, was developed "hand-in-hand" with the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, Hynick said.
"They made the recommendations and we built the program based on their standards," she said.
Among those who helped with the development of the program were members of the Solimine family, which operates two funeral homes in Lynn. David Solimine Jr. served on the community college's foundation board, and he sits on the Funeral Services Advisory Board with his son, Joel.
A number of years ago, Solimine approached the college about starting a funeral services program due the need to make such programs more affordable.
"The options for anyone looking to go into funeral services was quite expensive," he said.
Around that time, Mount Ida College, which had the closest local program, closed. That spurred North Shore to accelerate its efforts, Solimine said.
"We need to have a steady pipeline, if you will, to fill jobs as folks are retiring," Solimine said. The affordability of North Shore's program can also help diversify the industry's workforce.
Another person who advised the program's development was funeral director C.R. Lyons III, an owner of Lyons Funeral Home in Danvers. Lyons also serves as the president of the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association. He said North Shore's program will provide an alternative at a quarter of the cost of a private college program.
"Like most industries today, we are facing an employment shortage," said Lyons.
Working in a funeral home can be hard work. You have to support families in their grief, and then there are the physical demands of the job. There is a fair amount of burnout in the industry, Lyons said.
But the industry is also one that makes a good second career, he said, for someone who is compassionate, who may have had an interest in social work, ministry or nursing.
When the program launches in September, it will do so without lab space, which will be constructed on the Danvers campus where the community college's health programs are located.
There will be no embalming done on campus; that will be done at industry sites. Instead, the college will build a "simulated embalming lab" using a mannequin especially made for the mortuary industry. The community college received a $354,000 state grant to outfit the lab, Hynick said.
"We think we will be able to draw students from across Massachusetts and across New England," Hynick said, given the community college's proximity to Routes 95 and 1, and as programs in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire are scarce.
"Industry has really responded, in my mind," Hynick said. "This really is the way to design workforce education."
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.