Marijuana companies are on the prowl for new employees, but experience growing weed in the basement likely won’t fly on a résumé.
The bar for entry-level positions is moving higher as marijuana companies grow so fast it is no longer practical to train workers new to the industry. Growers and dispensaries increasingly want employees with academic training. The result: More colleges are starting to offer, for lack of a better term, a degree in growing marijuana.
“You’re going to need somebody who’s got some knowledge (that can) then adapt that to the facility,” said Paul Chialdikas, vice president of sales and marketing at Bedford Grow, which has a cultivation facility in Bedford Park, Illinois. “Timing is going to be critical for us to grab an employee that has experience. … We need them now.”
Most employees that have entered Illinois’ young marijuana industry did so either with experience earned in the black market or in states with more mature cannabis programs, like Colorado or California. Often, they have not worked with the plant at all.
Brian Kirkland and Jake Tracy started at Bedford Grow about three years ago without any experience. Kirkland was a butcher, and Tracy was in landscaping. Like all new employees at the facility, they started as trimmers, and have since worked their way up. For the past two harvests — or about six months — Kirkland and Tracy, now assistant cultivators, have each been in charge of the crop in one of Bedford Grow’s four grow rooms.
Sunglasses on, Kirkland moved among marijuana plants as blazing grow lights beat down, preparing a solution that would deliver nutrients to the plumping buds. The plants in his grow room were about a month from harvest, and they needed the food to produce dense, flavorful buds. Kirkland knew the solution would clog the tubes normally used to water the plants, so he had to feed them by hand.
In a plant-filled room nearby, Tracy cleaned his water lines. The plants in Tracy’s room were younger than Kirkland’s, maybe two months old. “In about a week they’ll be ready to start growing buds,” he said.
Kirkland and Tracy learned how to tend to the highly valued marijuana plants by apprenticing under the facility’s head growers. Soon Bedford Grow will add more cultivation rooms and need more growers to manage them. On a recent afternoon, Chialdikas opened a door at the facility to a sprawling room currently used for storage.
“This is the opportunity for us when the market goes rec (recreational) to add eight more growing rooms,” he said, looking out across the mostly empty space.
Many Illinois marijuana operators are already expanding their growing facilities. They’re working to supply a medical marijuana program that has added 25,000 patients in the past year, and they’re getting ready for the state’s potential legalization of recreational use, which could send demand soaring.
Degrees in marijuana
Schools around the country are rolling out cannabis courses or degree programs. Northern Michigan University launched a four-year medicinal plant chemistry degree in the fall of 2017. That first semester, 20 students participated. Enrollment was up to 220 a year later. Seattle Central College offers a Medical Marijuana Consultant certificate program. The University of California at Davis started offering a class on how cannabis compounds affect the human body last fall. Marijuana law classes are becoming more common, too, with courses at schools in Colorado, Ohio and Chicago.
More Illinois colleges and universities see the advantages to training their students for the advancing industry, but there are limits to how quickly they can roll out new programs.
Almost daily, Karen Midden, interim dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, gets a call from someone with a question about the cannabis program the school announced last year. Medical cannabis growers also call in search of students who know a thing or two about running a greenhouse.
“People think it’s some magical thing you have to learn to grow marijuana,” she said. In reality, she said, some of the same principals students learn about greenhouses or soil can be applied to cannabis.
SIU plans to bundle classes it already offers, plus a few new cannabis-specific courses, into a 30-credit hour cannabis certificate program. But all the university approvals needed to launch a new program mean it likely won’t be available until the end of the year, Midden said.
Some SIU agriculture alumni have already pursued work in the industry.
Jacob Heller graduated from SIU’s production horticulture program and worked at a commercial-scale indoor farm after graduation. He got into the cannabis industry in early 2016 through a job at Bedford Grow.
Now, the 27-year-old is cultivation manager at the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, grow facility for Chicago-based Grassroots Cannabis.
“I learned a ton when I first started working with the plants. The whole cannabis industry evolved separate from traditional horticulture,” Heller said. “But also once I learned the method of what the head growers wanted and what they expected, I was able to draw on a lot of my … experience to improve processes and make and grow healthier plants.”
‘No idea how to react’
Last month, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines said it was launching a program that would train students how to work with medical marijuana patients.
Quality budtenders, as dispensary workers are often called, are in high demand as the number of patients shopping at Illinois’ dispensaries increases. The job is much more complicated than just selling the weed, said Chris Torres, patient care specialist at Greengate Chicago, a dispensary in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Budtenders work with customers to find the right marijuana strains and products to treat serious illnesses.
To be eligible for Illinois’ medical cannabis program, people must either have one of about 40 qualifying conditions such as AIDS or cancer, or have a condition for which opioids could be prescribed.
There’s no shortage of people interested in working at a marijuana dispensary, Torres said. But most job applicants are what Torres calls “cannabis enthusiasts” — in other words, they know about weed, but they don’t know how chronically ill patients should use the drug.
“This business is super serious. … I have people literally break down at the table. At that point you become a therapist,” said Torres, who worked with Oakton on its program. “A cannabis enthusiast is going to have no idea how to react in that situation.”
If approved, Oakton’s program would teach participants about chronic illness, so they’re prepared to handle those encounters.
Potential job candidates have also used online or daylong certificate programs to ready them for entry-level positions in the industry.
For-profit Cannabis Training University, launched in 2009 and based in Denver, plans to roll out more advanced online course offerings this year, said CEO Jeff Zorn. The four-hour crash courses Florida-based HempStaff offers throughout the country are meant to be used as pre-employment training, to get potential dispensary workers interview-ready, said its CEO James Yagielo.
‘Critical for business’
The marijuana industry has become a legitimate career path, and it is getting more competitive, said Morgan Fox, media relations director at the National Cannabis Industry Association. The demand for qualified individuals is growing, as is the caliber of those qualifications.
Lawmakers also recognize the need for standardized training for budtenders in a recreational market. Gov. J.B. Pritzker supports legalizing recreational marijuana, and state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, is working with other lawmakers to draft a legalization bill they hope to get passed by May.
The bill could contain a provision requiring some sort of training for budtenders in the recreational market, Steans said. Those workers need to be trained on potential effects they should warn consumers about, or why pregnant women should not have access, for example, she said. It’s a separate set of skills than those needed to grow marijuana or to work with medical patients.
Industry members could provide the recreational budtender training, like restaurant associations do with bartenders, she said.
Having good budtenders also could give dispensaries a competitive advantage, said Bethany Gomez, managing director of Chicago-based cannabis research firm Brightfield Group. Though budtender knowledge is rarely a patient’s deciding factor on where to shop, 7 in 10 people who responded to a 2017 Brightfield survey said they seriously considered budtender recommendations.
“As these companies ramp up and volume increases and the number of patients increase, it’s critical for business to have good people in place there,” Gomez said. “If they don’t, the patients aren’t going to come back.”