Pot jobs out there, but hiring may be gradual

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 19, 2018, by MJ Tidwell

Massachusetts is on track to roll out recreational cannabis on July 1 this year, and while there has been strong interest regionally in cannabis-related jobs, initial hiring growth is uncertain as many wait to see the effect of new state regulations and watch for shifts at the federal level.

Some 350 people attended a November job fair to staff the new INSA medical marijuana dispensary in Easthampton, and nearly a thousand more applied online, according to INSA general manager Ian Kelly.

The positions attracted candidates with backgrounds in fields such as horticulture, botany, molecular science, chemistry, accounting, operations, security and retail, Kelly said. The Easthampton dispensary has 50 employees, and plans to hire more in the future.

Kelly expects similar turnout for jobs at INSA’s Springfield dispensary, set to move forward this spring with around 20 employees, and says hiring will only increase with recreational sales beginning this summer.

“As the industry continues to grow, both for patients and in the near future with recreational cannabis sales, the need for talented team members will only continue to develop,” Kelly said. “New positions will be added to help address needs of the business that evolve with recreational demands, along with adding additional team members to the business to support current departments.”

Dispensaries like INSA provide many of the jobs most people associate with the cannabis industry: growers, trimmers, budtenders, edible creators. A SimplyHired posting for edible manufacturing assistant listed for the Easthampton dispensary requires ServSafe food handler status and offers an estimated salary of $22,000 to $30,000 a year.

Another Massachusetts medical dispensary listing on SimplyHired offers between $23,000 and $31,000 to become a member of the “trim team” — someone who trims the cannabis flower to prepare it for sale and use.

With more experience, positions like state-contracted compliance officer net between $32 and $46 an hour, and a bookkeeper “knowledgeable on regulations related to the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Program” may earn between $40,000 and $53,000 a year according to an INSA SimplyHired posting.

A budtender’s perspective

These cannabis-specific jobs offer ways to meld backgrounds and skills, and can create new and unique job opportunities, says Ben Diem, a budtender in Shasta Valley, California.

Diem began working in a medical marijuana dispensary after spending time in the restaurant business after high school. It’s great work, he said, with a good salary and benefits, and though he sees himself staying a budtender for a while, his long-term plans involve culinary school and carefully crafted edibles.

As a budtender, Diem has taken classes, participated in an online budtending training course, and spent time learning about the cannabinoid system so he can recommend different cannabis products to customers.

Along with technical knowledge, he said, the key to his job is understanding people, knowing where they’re coming from and where they want to go. His job is perfect for a “people person,” he said, but there are opportunities for many kinds of work.

“There are a ton of different cannabis jobs emerging, from growing to distribution, spokespeople to vendors who come in and set up a booth and take orders,” he said.

“I have a friend starting up a vaping company, (and) my dad is considering opening a ‘bud and breakfast.’ There’s room for jobs, for careers, even entrepreneurship in the cannabis industry.”

“Bud and breakfasts” are hotels where guests are allowed to use legal cannabis, and are a part of the growing cannabis tourism industry.

Job growth

According to a report by New Frontier Data, the authority in business intelligence for the cannabis industry, 121,000 people were employed in the legal cannabis industry in 2017 across the nation. The report estimates that number will increase to more than 283,000 jobs by 2020.

One area seeing particular job growth is cannabis testing.

In Massachusetts, medical cannabis must be tested by an independent laboratory certified by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for a variety of contaminants, such as pesticides, metals and mold.

One such testing facility is Massachusetts Cannabis Research Labs in Framingham. Mike Kahn, the president and founder of MCR Labs, said the company has grown from two to 18 full-time employees over the last few years.

“It’s an interesting industry, in that it requires testing traditionally done in other industries. We draw from pharmaceutical, agricultural and environmental chemistry,” he said. “We have to have a lab that combines elements from all different labs, and we train our analysts on a cross section of a whole lot of different disciplines.”

Most of his employees have bachelor’s or master’s degrees, and he said he’s been able to hire some students right out of college through the Mass. Life Sciences Program. The lab also employs regular business staff, marketing and accounting employees, and software programmers.

Kahn said recreational marijuana will likely have similar testing requirements, though regulations won’t be finalized until March.

“What we do expect is a change in volume, so we’re hiring more analysts and training them now so that we’re ready,” he said.

However, some experts caution that initial hiring for recreational cannabis may need time to ramp up as businesses adjust to new regulations and watch for shifts at the federal level.

Starting slowly

In California, the rollout of legal recreational marijuana at the start of the new year has resulted in only a slight increase in hiring so far, according to Danielle Schumacher.

Schumacher is a co-founder and president of THC Staffing Group, an organization that matches employers and candidates specifically in the cannabis industry. Her fellow co-founder, Shaleen Title, is now a commissioner on the five-member Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, which is developing regulations for the recreational marijuana industry.

Schumacher said some businesses in California prepared for the recreational roll-out by hiring key managers and compliance directors in advance, but many businesses are still holding off on large-scale hiring until they know the market, demand and effect of regulations, such as whether people with former marijuana convictions will be allowed to work in the budding industry.

“It’s possible that when things first get going in Massachusetts, there might not be as much hiring as people expect,” she said, “In California, they’re still kind of on pause to see how things go and see what they need.”

This cautious view is echoed by Philip Korman, the executive director for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in Deerfield. While state law currently prohibits medical cannabis from being grown outdoors or in greenhouses to avoid cross-pollination and contamination, that may change for recreational cannabis, opening new agricultural opportunities.

“We are hoping that the Cannabis Control Commission is going to provide opportunities for family farms to make their own decisions about whether to grow cannabis for adult use or not,” Korman said.

But like others watching the growing cannabis industry, he said for now, it’s wait and see.

“From our vantage point at CISA, it’s unclear what the economic opportunity will be because there’s still so much doubt on the federal level.”