The cannabis employment market outlook for 2022 is a mixed bag. Although the industry is creating tens of thousands of new jobs annually, a shortage of experienced workers means finding—and keeping—good employees requires a degree of finesse.
One of the underlying issues of 2021’s lumpy economy was persistent challenges relating to hiring. As of October, demand for workers outstripped supply by about 4.3 million people. While industries like leisure and hospitality have been among the slowest to return to pre-pandemic employment levels, the cannabis workforce has ballooned.
According to a collaborative study from Leafly and the Whitney Institute, cannabis added 77,000 jobs nationally in 2020, representing 32-percent year-on-year growth and a 161-percent increase over the past four years.
As of January 2021, there were 321,000 full-time jobs supported by legal cannabis—meaning there were more legal cannabis workers than emergency medical technicians and paramedics combined (about 258,000 at the time). Florida is home to more legal cannabis workers than plumbers. And, in an ironic twist, Michigan now has more cannabis workers than cops.
Job growth in cannabis is dwarfing growth in other industries, confirming what many suspected during the pandemic: Cannabis is growing at a far faster clip than any other industry in America, proving itself to be not only recession-proof but also essential to the country’s functioning in times of crisis.
Demand rises across all sectors
The uptick in job openings has been observed at the top and bottom rungs of the industry, from hourly workers to executives, and it’s happening in every state with some form of legalization framework.
“In the past three months, we’ve done placements in twelve different states,” said David Belsky, founder and chief executive officer at FlowerHire, a recruiting agency specializing in staffing “six-figure cannabis jobs” for vertically integrated and ancillary cannabis companies. “Those have been everything from dozens of C-level roles to management, directors, [vice presidents], and sales positions.”
Kelsea Appelbaum, head of community partnerships at Colorado-based recruiter Vangst, observed, “Every company in every state in every market new or old is hiring in some capacity.”
The meteoric growth has created an urgent need for outside talent to sustain momentum. As a consequence, Viridian Staffing cofounder and CEO Kara Bradford has seen a shift in the balance of power away from companies and in favor of candidates. “We’ve been in an employers’ market for all this time. We haven’t really been in a candidates’ market yet,” said Bradford, whose firm has served the cannabis industry since 2013. “I remember when we would have 500 applicants for one director of cultivation. That’s not the case anymore.
“To give an example, we have an extraction opening right now, and one of the individuals is actively interviewing with five different companies,” she continued. “It’s looking like there probably will be offers from at least half, if not more. We’re getting into a situation where candidates are basically collecting offers.”
The situation is compounded by both the industry’s youth and its highly regulated nature. “The challenge of this industry right now is it needs to hire tens of thousands of people a year who have never worked professionally in cannabis,” said Belsky. “The way the job search process works in most industries is if you want to hire a server, you look for someone with experience working in restaurants. You can’t really do that in cannabis yet.”
Bradford and Viridian have been operational for the entire arc of legal cannabis and have seen employers shift back and forth between experience requirements. As they see the market today, mandates for experience are largely role-specific.
“What happened back in 2016—and we’re seeing it happen again—is cannabis companies want people with cannabis experience,” said Bradford. “I would say this is more prominent for individuals coming to extraction or cultivation, but we see it in sales as well.”
“If you have the experience and desirable skills, it’s not a bad time to be shopping around and looking at your options,” she added.
For recent University of Southern California graduate and budding cannabis worker Max Kempski, obtaining experience has been the biggest barrier to entry. Although he started his own CBD company during his final years in school, he has yet to gain meaningful experience as an employee. Kempski is caught in a place familiar to many new graduates: Employers say they want experience, but no one is willing to dish it out. With California’s hyper-competitive industry now in its twenty-fifth year, experienced candidates are more plentiful than in emerging markets, and employers can be more selective.
“It has become pretty competitive to get hired in general,” he said, “with or without cannabis experience.”
Kempski is seeing available positions listed on Glassdoor and Indeed for sales reps and account managers, but brands are demanding new account managers come complete with relevant industry contacts. For mid-level positions such as territory sales managers, employers have made it clear they want someone with more than two years of cannabis sales experience.
While the industry was on a steady upward curve, the pandemic was a significant force multiplier for cannabis companies’ credibility as employers. After getting a carve-out as an essential industry and experiencing a surge in sales from a canna-curious American public bored at home and/or stressed for much of the year, cannabis looks a whole lot more stable and legitimate than it once did.
For Appelbaum and Vangst, the pandemic was a powerful catalyst for legitimizing the industry in the eyes of outsiders. “When I joined [the industry] in 2017, it was like pulling teeth to get talent to consider coming to cannabis,” she said. “Honestly, post-COVID, that’s no longer the case. The industry being deemed essential made us effectively recession-proof, and while other industries were doing mass layoffs and companies were going under, cannabis was growing and growing.
“These days,” she added, “if you reach out to [recruit] someone in a leadership position at a major company, chances are they’re going to take the call because they’re intrigued by cannabis.”
Reports analyzing the so-called “Great Resignation” have been a fixture in the news and on LinkedIn since mid-2021. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021 alone, while Microsoft found a staggering 41 percent of the global workforce and 54 percent of Gen Z workers are flirting with throwing in the towel at their current positions.
The Viridian team sees a major opportunity for the cannabis industry as people search for jobs with more purpose. “We are seeing a lot of people who sat down during the pandemic and started to reevaluate their careers,” said Bradford, highlighting the seismic shift from retail, hospitality, and general manufacturing into cannabis.
“People realized they no longer have to go to this boring job or sit in an office all day,” said Appelbaum. “You can work toward something better that’s changing our world.”
Belsky even sees cannabis as the perfect industry to revive sectors that have been in steady decline from globalization and increasing digitization. “We really believe cannabis is one of those things that can help to reinvent the middle class,” he said. “It’s a very integrated supply chain, and every state has retail and manufacturing jobs that were hit hard in the past several decades. This industry brings those jobs back en masse.”
That’s particularly true for hourly workers, who have proved a persistent headache for hiring managers and recruiters across the economic spectrum. The pandemic rendered low-wage workers either “essential” (and therefore on the frontlines of danger, such as grocery store employees) or unessential (furloughed or laid off, such as bartenders). Convincing people to risk their lives for minimum wage is, perhaps unsurprisingly, proving challenging as the United States tries to stabilize its economy.
Of the major recruiters in cannabis, Vangst appears to be addressing the situation most actively. Since its founding in 2017, Vangst gradually has expanded its scope away from a bespoke headhunting model in favor of something more all-encompassing. Appelbaum said the move was a response to the growing gig economy and a need for temporary labor, particularly during harvest, known colloquially as “Croptober.”
“Say Company X approaches us because they need 500 temporary workers for Croptober. Vangst is actually able to send temporary labor out to work on any project you need, on our payroll, so you don’t incur any of the employment costs,” Appelbaum explained. “You can use them for one hour all the way up until months at a time on our payroll.”
Most recently, the company deployed a 200-person workforce to San Francisco music festival Outside Lands, which incorporates the lauded Grasslands cannabis activation area.
Vangst also turned its website into a job and candidates board, allowing prospective employers to look for candidates actively trying to break into the industry and then hire directly. “Candidates can add their photo, resume, LinkedIn profile, all the details about who they are and what they bring to the table,” said Appelbaum, noting Vangst’s roster includes about 30,000 candidates and more than 800 active jobs. “By developing listings on both ends, we’re able to better facilitate connections.”
FlowerHire also expanded its scope by launching a frontline and hourly worker tool called FlowerHire Express in spring 2021. The lightweight software is powered by a proprietary method of distributing job applications to drive relevant candidate responses for the most common hourly positions, including cultivation associates, trimmers, budtenders, packaging associates, and delivery drivers.
“It’s almost like a lightweight applicant tracking system or virtual talent manager that intelligently matches candidates seeking a career in cannabis with the right position,” said Belsky. “We see it as a more personalized, data-driven approach to solving the talent puzzle for volume hourly positions.”
Belsky explained the application process for the candidate is “gamified,” leaning heavily on personality and self-assessment to guide prospective candidates toward the right role. “Candidates may go in thinking they were looking for a budtender job but realize they might be happier as a cultivation associate,” he said.
The hiring process
However, despite widespread vacancies and the emergence of promising tech-forward solutions, job-seeker Kempski hasn’t had much luck with any of the agencies. He said one presented him with positions not commensurate with his background and goals, while another paired him with a Florida recruiter despite his insistence on working in California. “That fizzled out quickly, so I was on my own again,” he explained. “Since then, I’ve been cold-emailing brands with a cover letter and visiting dispensaries to inquire in person. Needless to say, it hasn’t been an effective strategy.”
Kempski estimates he’s applied to more than 300 positions and has had interview requests from almost fifty companies. “I usually make it to the last interview for most of these companies but, unfortunately, hiring managers don’t follow up with positive or negative updates, so I don’t know where I stand in the process,” he said. “Even after emailing most companies, I can never get a response as to why it didn’t work out.”
How companies show up in the hiring process is becoming increasingly important. Viridian’s Bradford thinks cannabis companies should be conscious of their “brand” as an employer if they want to compete for the best talent. “Cannabis companies spend a lot of money marketing their products, but they don’t focus on building their employer brand,” she said.
Bradford recommends companies maintain a “careers” page on their website describing the corporate culture and the career path one might expect to take within the company. “Start by putting a few photos of your employees really enjoying working there, and then your core values or mission statement,” she advised.
With industry experience in high demand and short supply, cannabis has been forced to promote from within, leading to higher levels of retention than other industries. While this is a positive for workers and the industry as a whole, it’s creating pressure for individual companies.
“We’re actually retaining quite a lot of the talent we brought into the cannabis industry over the years,” said Bradford. “It’s just they’re moving to other cannabis companies.”
FlowerHire’s Belsky echoed the observation and added a warning: The high premium placed on relevant experience has created a trend of companies “poaching” talent from one another, so no one can afford to become complacent with their current workforce. The trend likely will intensify as the industry spreads from coast to coast.
“Retention needs to be thought of proactively now, because operators in states that are scaling rapidly can pull employees from competitors in this industry for the first time,” he said. “That is leading companies in this space to take proactive measures to retain their workers.”
Employers who want to attract and retain great talent must up their game by offering compelling salaries and benefits and being explicit about growth opportunities within the organization.
For candidates with experience, now may be the best opportunity they’ll have to make major career moves. They’re in high demand today, but that won’t last forever. By the time the lumps in the employment market eventually flatten out, more workers will have gained experience and joined the competition.
As for those seeking an executive or managerial move from another industry, Belsky offered some sobering words of caution: “Success in other industries does not mean success in cannabis.
“What we’ve seen is people who have never worked at a startup or hyper-growth company find the pace of learning and change to be too much,” he said, pointing to California in 2018 and 2019, when the industry welcomed talent from established companies that looked great in an investor deck but couldn’t stomach the turbulence or the personal sacrifices cannabis tends to demand.
“We look for folks who have experienced that speed before but also have a relationship with the plant,” he said. “This industry becomes a lifestyle. You have to want it. If you’re the right person but you’re not prepared to have your job infringe on the boundaries you set in your life, you probably shouldn’t work in cannabis right now.”