Cannabis Industry Promises Workforce Opportunities
Growing a Job Market
By Mark Morris
When a new industry in Massachusetts reaches $1 billion in sales in only four years, it certainly gets people’s attention.
The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) recently announced that, four years after legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, and only two years after the first retail shops opened, this relatively new industry surpassed that $1 billion mark on Oct. 30.
“There are a lot of jobs that go along with a billion dollars in industry activity,” said Jeff Hayden, vice president for Business and Community Services at the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC).
Shortly after cannabis was legalized in the state, Hayden spoke with advocacy groups and business leaders in the industry, which led to establishing the Cannabis Education Center at HCC to provide training for in-demand occupations in the burgeoning industry.
“Our focus wasn’t on the product itself; we wanted to identify the occupations that make the most sense so we can train people for those jobs,” Hayden said.
After completing a core course to familiarize students with the cannabis industry, more concentrated training is available in four career tracks:
• Patient-service associates work behind the counter at a cannabis dispensary, interact with the public, answer technical questions, and provide information to registered cannabis patients, as well as recreational customers;
• Culinary assistants prepare cannabis-infused products such as gummy candies and baked goods infused with cannabis;
• Extraction technicians work in a lab assisting production managers in extraction, purging, oil manipulation, and quality control of cannabis products; and
• Cultivation assistants provide daily care of the crops from seed to harvest.
“Because HCC offers courses in business and customer service, culinary, chemistry, and agriculture, the career tracks for cannabis training line up well with the expertise the college already has,” said Michele Cabral, executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at HCC, who worked with instructors to set up the cannabis course offerings.
As a community college, HCC doesn’t allow cannabis or associated products on campus. That means classroom instruction might involve using computer simulations to show chemical reactions, for example. When a physical demonstration is needed, legally approved items like hemp plants are used in class.
“While we will not have cannabis or related products on campus, we will still do the job education has always done: share with our students the best knowledge we can provide and the best examples,” Hayden said, noting that students can get actual hands-on experience when they land internships or get placed in a job.
He added that the courses are designed to provide an entry-level workforce for the cannabis industry. Wages are usually comparable and sometimes slightly higher than other industries at entry level.
“Even more important than landing that first job is the ability to make a career out of cannabis, because the levels of compensation can be significant,” he told BusinessWest.
Whether a person is looking for an entry-level job or a second career, Cabral said cannabis can be a “phenomenal career track” for people who have never considered it before.
For example, someone with a sales background could train as a patient-services associate training to build on the skills they already have. Or someone with a science background and wants to work in a lab could train as an extraction technician to learn about cannabis-infused products such as skin creams and shampoos.
“This person with science and lab training would find an entire industry that is exploding, where they could have an amazing career,” she said. “Who knows? They could come in at entry level and work their way up to be the head of the lab.”
There’s much more to the industry than rolling a joint, Cabral continued, noting that cannabis-infused shampoos and skin creams are only two examples of the many different items that appeal to the general public. “These products are extremely clean, closely regulated, and environmentally sustainable. It’s not just about getting high.”
Elevating an Industry
Elevate Northeast, a nonprofit workforce-training and cannabis-advocacy group has partnered with HCC on career-training programs at the Cannabis Education Center.
Beth Waterfall, founder and executive director of Elevate Northeast, said the program at HCC is designed to help people become familiar and comfortable with the industry. “The coursework helps people see that this is real. There’s a place for their interests and their skills.”
Elevate Northeast’s main mission is to provide opportunities for people who have been marginalized or were disproportionately harmed by previous marijuana prohibitions. The CCC administers a Social Equity Program to provide assistance and training to encourage those impacted by the ‘war on drugs’ to pursue careers as workers or entrepreneurs in the cannabis field.
Waterfall said righting past wrongs is one of the mandates of the CCC. The Certified Economic Empowerment application process is a way to encourage people from neighborhoods and communities that suffered from the impact of the war on drugs to seek licenses to open cannabis microbusinesses. She added that establishing microbusinesses also prevents larger companies from dominating the cannabis market.
“I’m excited about the cannabis industry because, through programs like social equity and economic empowerment, Massachusetts has an opportunity to be a leader in business ownership by people of color and women,” she said.
Waterfall called HCC’s Cannabis Education Center a “wonderful” way to provide people with both an initial exposure and a deep dive into the cannabis industry, as well as helping people understand how they may fit into it. “Who knows? This exposure may encourage them to someday own their own business.”
While retail cannabis operations have launched in many Western Mass. communities, the city of Holyoke has been most active, currently boasting four dispensaries, with at least two more scheduled to open in 2021. Based on workplace needs identified by these companies, the job market for cannabis looks to be healthy through 2021.
“By rough estimate, I anticipate, within the coming year, we will have 400 to 500 workers in the cannabis industry, just in Holyoke,” Hayden said.
Because Western Mass. offers both skilled workers and cheaper land compared to the eastern part of the state, Waterfall sees real growth potential and cited Holyoke as quickly becoming a center of cannabis commerce. “The city needed innovation and needed jobs. Cannabis is doing that very effectively in Holyoke.”
Such strong demand for talent would normally be an opportunity for career centers like MassHire to be involved. That’s not the case, however; David Cruise, president of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, noted that his organization receives most of its funding from the federal government, which has not recognized cannabis as a legal substance.
“Until laws change at the federal level, we cannot be actively engaged in getting involved with job seekers in the cannabis industry,” Cruise said. While he is aware of the increase in local job opportunities in the industry, MassHire will be taking a hands-off approach to cannabis employment.
That presents a stark opportunity for HCC’s programs. In her conversations with cannabis-industry employers, Cabral found they are looking for workers who represent the diversity of their customers. One dispensary owner said clients can range from a 40-year-old woman craving a good night’s sleep to a younger person looking for a recreational product.
“The people who use the products are as diverse as the population in general, so that’s who we want to train, and that’s who the employers want to hire,” she said.
During training, Cabral reminds her students that success means following basics like showing up on time with a good attitude, effectively communicating with the management team, and putting their cell phones away. “These are real careers in real businesses that are trying to make money, so come ready to work.”
Hayden echoes that point and noted that, while it’s not surprising for someone who has an interest in cannabis to work in the industry, employers will expect them to put in an honest effort and have an open mind to learn more and grow. He also advised they pay attention to the little things that can make a big difference.
“One employer told me, he chooses his customer-service people by whether or not they walk into the room with a smile.”
Cultivating an Ecosystem
While the cannabis industry offers many career pathways, Hayden said it’s easy to forget about all the traditional back-of-house functions such as accounting, marketing, and data analytics that companies need on top of the industry-specific positions.
While it’s called the cannabis industry, Waterfall added, it’s really more of an ecosystem that encourages people to bring their diverse skills to it.
“While I run a nonprofit, I pay my bills by consulting with cannabis companies on marketing communications and business development,” she said, noting that she started out doing similar work, except her clients were lawyers and accounting firms.
While COVID-19 has made it difficult to get a clear sense of job growth, Hayden said the industry is just getting off the ground and still promises a strong growth trajectory.
“Like any industry, there will be ups and downs,” he added, “but the projections post-COVID are suggesting we could hit a billion dollars a year in a short period of time.”
That kind of success helps overcome some of the stigma of cannabis use, which Waterfall admits can be very strong, whether coming from family or community. While she has been educating her own family, some are still not comfortable with cannabis use.
“Then I hear from someone who tried an infused gummy and has never slept so well, or the person who told me she drinks a CBD tincture in the morning, and it makes her a better mom.”
Anecdotes like those help debunk the stereotypes and stigmas about who uses cannabis, and why. Cabral hopes more people come to understand this is a serious industry with products that can be helpful to a wide range of customers. As such, cannabis needs a committed workforce that also takes itself seriously and moves past old stereotypes.
“Jobs in this field can be extremely technical,” she said. “It’s not just go listen to Bob Marley and have a party.”