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Fuel to the Hire: Breaking into the Canna-Career

By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
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So, you want to get a job in the cannabis industry? Better sharpen your digital networking skills. The competition is fierce. 


COVID-19 has turned the cannabis job market on its head. Before the pandemic hit, employers were struggling to find and retain talent in the lightning-hot cannabis industry, which boasted one of the country’s fastest-growing job markets, with a job creation rate of 110 percent from 2017 to 2020 and a median annual salary of $58,511 (11 percent higher than the national average), according to Forbes. Cannabis companies competed mightily for quality workers amid record low unemployment. In Canada, the shortage was so dire that companies were importing workers from the US (those were the days, eh?).  
Then in March, it all came to a screeching halt. “For the first time in five years, we had zero job openings for a week,” says James Yagielo, CEO of HempStaff, which does hemp and cannabis recruiting and dispensary training.  
For a moment, no one knew what would happen. Denver experienced the shortest prohibition in history when Mayor Michael Hancock closed dispensaries and stores, then opened them a few hours later after dangerous crowds swarmed, look- ing to stockpile reserves.  
Unlike the travel and hospitality industries, cannabis bounced back in an extreme recovery as soon as it was deemed an essential business in most states where it’s legal. Sales have soared throughout the lockdown and beyond, and New Frontier Data predicts they could reach $13.1 billion by 2025.  
By the end of April, Yagielo says, job listings were back up to about half of what they were pre-pandemic. After the Fourth of July weekend, when people began to realize their federal unemployment benefits were about to run out, far more resumes than job listings began flooding in. 
Recruiters say a lot of resumes are coming from people who have been ousted from jobs in other industries, people who might have considered cannabis too risky or controversial before but couldn’t help but notice that dispensaries and cannabis stores remained open—and quite busy—while the rest of the world shut down. Being deemed essential did a lot of the industry’s reputation.
“What COVID-19 has done, really, is address the stigma around cannabis on the broadest scale,” says Brian Sekandi, founder of Careers Cannabis, a smart-search platform that connects talent with companies in the global cannabis industry. “Everybody was confronted with the fact that cannabis is an essential business across North America, and that really confronts the idea that cannabis is bad. It’s no longer this nasty underground industry.” 
“When it was deemed an essential business, that was a big mindshift for a lot of people,” says Kyle Arfsten, a client relations director for Kforce (kforce.com), which builds and manages technology, finance, and accounting teams for top employers, including cannabis companies, nationwide. “People who typically wouldn’t attempt to get into the industry are now open to the idea.”  
All that means “a lot of people are trying to transition into the industry right now,” says JR Hindman, founder of Marijuana Resumes, which has been providing job seekers with resumes and cover letters coded for the industry since 2016. “They’re unemployed, sitting at home, and thinking, ‘what is my next move? Why not switch gears and pursue a career I never thought possible?’ These are weird times, so why not get weird with it?”  

QUANTITY DRIVING QUALITY  

In July, HempStaff advertised a customer service job in Los Angeles. More than 1,600 people applied. “Companies are running into the issue where they have an abundance of people applying for jobs, and they have to sort through them,” says Arfsten. “There is definitely an increase in the talent pool—like the old saying goes, quantity drives quality.” In addition to all the newcomers from shuttered restaurants and retail hubs, the cannabis industry was already accumulating a stable of experienced workers laid off as the young industry went through some necessary reality checks in the months leading up to Covid.  
After being out of work for upwards of six months, Yagielo says, these professionals are willing to take a pay cut if it means steady employment. He has seen master growers’ salaries drop from upwards of $100,000 to $80,000.  
“I used to tell people it would take six to eight months to break into the industry,” Yagielo says. “Now, who knows how long it’s going to be. We’re seeing people with industry experience take six to eight months to find a job.”  

LOW AND SLOW  

Wildly uncertain economic times certainly aren’t helping job seekers right now, as a lot of companies take a more conservative approach and slow down on hiring until they have a better sense of what the future holds. “Unfortunately for individuals in this market, even though there’s tons of opportunity in cannabis, it hasn’t become easier to get in,” says Sekandi.  
On top of all the barriers to entry, the type of jobs available and how much they pay have both been diminished since the pandemic hit, Yagielo says. Budtending jobs, which pay between $12.50 and $18 an hour, are the most abundant and available. Budtending has been the most common way of breaking into the industry since the beginning, but budtenders are more in demand than ever as cannabis retailers open their storefronts back up while maintaining curbside pickup and delivery (which became way too popular during lockdown to let go).  
Reviews of budtending as a career starter are decidedly mixed. It is, after all, a retail job. You have to be able to deal with the public and, sometimes, managers with dubious if not nefarious leadership skills. You may have to throw out a few people who refuse to wear masks in your store, but you’ll also get to be an ambassador for people who have never experienced cannabis before.  
“The pay is shit, but the perks are great,” is how one Redditor recently summed it up. “I love getting free samples all the time. Brands and growers are always kissing our asses with free stuff, and that makes the lousy pay worth it.”  

EXPERT ADVICE  

Standard advice for job seekers in any industry is to get out and network, but as Hindman points out, “it’s not like you can go out and shake hands and kiss babies these days.”  
In this age of social distancing, Hindman says, networking has shifted to LinkedIn and social media—so you better get savvy there. Taking an online training or certification is another way to meet people (while also beefing up your resume), he adds. “People have to start thinking outside the box if they want a career in this industry.”  
“The folks who stand out in this environment are the ones who do a little bit extra, put in a little more effort,” says Sekandi. “Put yourself out there. Be willing to learn and listen. Engage without getting something in return. The key is to get on people’s radars.”  
Sekandi says his own network has exploded now that he is no longer limited by physical boundaries. He’s constantly online taking classes and participating in Tech Stars programs and conferences, where he finds ample opportunity to meet and connect directly with participants and speakers.  
“In chaos, the world becomes flat,” he says. “I now have access to so many people who were just too busy pre-COVID-19. Today they’ll take the time.”  


HIRED.EXE

Start your online job search with these nine cannabis-centric career aggregates:

420Careers / 420careers.com
Full- and part-time jobs and gigs 
Cannabiz Team / cannabizteam.com
Places talent in all areas of the cannabis industry 
Cannajobs / cannajobs.com
Jobs in growing, technology, and more 
Careers Cannabis / careerscannabis.com
Smart-search platform connecting talent with companies 
Ganjapreneur / ganjapreneur.com
Searchable job board 
HempStaff / hempstaff.com
Hemp and cannabis industry recruiting 
Marijuana Resumes / marijuanaresumes.com
Helps job seekers write resumes and cover letters coded for the industry 
Ms. Mary Staffing / msmarystaffing.com
Dispensary recruiting agency 
THC Staffing Group / thcstaffinggroup.com
Boutique recruitment firm for the cannabis industry 
Vangst / vangst.com
Cannabis industry job board and more