Many entry-level retail jobs experience a high turnover rate, and the cannabis industry is no different. Dispensary budtenders are categorized as an entry-level foray into cannabis, and unsurprisingly 55 percent of these employees who worked at any point over the past previous 12 months had departed by the end of that time period in the U.S. and Canada according to data firm Headset.
There are quite a few factors that may play into this phenomenon, especially in the early days of legal cannabis when budtenders were often overworked, underpaid, and constantly in danger of being raided and rendered unemployed by the federal government.
But today, with cannabis closer to federal legality than ever before in the U.S. and fully legal in Canada, operators are rightfully making a more pointed effort to retain their budtenders by making them feel valued, respected, and heard in their vital role as knowledgeable ambassadors between cannabis products and interested consumers.
Why Cannabis Budtender Turnover is so High
In the reigning days of the underground cannabis market, working as a budtender was layered with difficulties and dangers. An unregulated industry is too easily conducive to a Wild West-esque atmosphere, where working conditions were poor employees were taken for granted.
This was true for many budtenders, who were often required to work exceedingly long hours on their feet for very little pay. They were also constantly at risk of being fired or even arrested for their involvement in an illicit industry, and in extreme cases, victims of workplace harassment and/or abuse that went unmonitored and unregulated.
As a result, the turnover rate for the underground market was understandably high, and that trend has lingered even as the industry has legitimized and taken huge steps to hold itself to much higher standards.
“You have an industry that existed underground and in the dark for so long, and a lot of the budtenders today are people who have been in the industry since it was fully illegal,” said Wurk’s Vice President of People and Strategy JoJo Palacio.
“The corporate level of the industry sees a lot of growth and success, but the budtenders don’t — they’re stuck in the dispensary room. It’s the same issue as you see when talking about corporate versus team members: that disconnect. Corporate cannabis tends to view the budtender position as one with a common and easy skill set. But that’s not the case, and budtenders are essential for some consumers and users. For example, think about consumers that need expert knowledge for health reasons.”
However, not everyone in the industry agrees with this sentiment. At cannabis job and staffing solutions company Vangst, the team has noticed an increase in budtender appreciation that only took a turn for the worse within the recent, pandemic-fueled period known as the Great Resignation.
“Cannabis is a young industry, and being a budtender was, for a long time, a badge of honor. It still is for most of the budtenders we work with at Vangst. Budtenders were some of the highest-paid retail workers around until the recent labor shortage as people across the country reconsidered working in low-wage, high-risk positions,” said Vangst Vice President of Partnerships Kelsea Appelbaum.
“We’re seeing many of those low-wage, high-risk workers look to cannabis as a better alternative to restaurant work or other forms of hospitality. The cannabis customer is often a lot easier to work with than a hotel guest or diner, and the pay is still competitive.”
While this all may be true, it doesn’t negate the fact that turnover rates can still be high for these retail converts — but that all comes down to workplace environment, employee appreciation, and how dispensary managers choose to value the people who work for them.
How to Combat Budtender Turnover
No matter the industry or position, people are undeniably happy to work hard and energetically when they feel valued and respected. For dispensary owners or managers, this is a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to operating a successful location for the employees and customers alike.
When employees feel they are making a valuable contribution to the workflow, they’re often empowered to keep growing and expanding in their position, ultimately resulting in a strong team of knowledgeable and successful budtenders.
Here are a few important things to consider when imagining what your work environment should look like for success:
Think about the ground level more
As Palacio mentioned, corporate offices often make the mistake of overlooking the retail level of operations, but that is the heart and soul of your business. Treat your budtenders accordingly, offering them chances to develop their skills, move up in the ranks, and have their ideas seriously heard and considered.“The support budtenders get is important too. Let’s say their manager isn’t a good manager, but the corporate office isn’t seeing that. Creating programs that train managers on managing employee relations cases and allow them to be heard is a great tool, like AllVoices,” Palacio said.
Provide customized training and incentives
It’s not always enough to provide opportunities for training and education. Offering incentives to keep expanding in the budtender role is important, and can be easily achieved with a little tailored consideration.
“You can begin by educating budtenders on the nuances of different products and strains, allowing them to be confident and effective in interacting with customers,” said CannabizTeam CEO Liesl Bernard. “It’s also helpful to offer financial rewards tied to their ability to increase sales and ability to interact with customers, or offer some advancement opportunities for those who display exceptional leadership skills.
Recognize successes often
It sounds so simple, but recognizing your employees’ successes — and doing it often — is a highly effective way to make them feel valued and respected.
“Treat your employees well, pay them a living wage, and hire the right people so a healthy culture develops,” Appelbaum said. “The best thing you can do is make your talent feel valued and cared for. Culture is everything.”
Be prepared to hire new people
Employee retention is important to consider and aim for, but you also have to be prepared to hire new people if it just isn’t working out. And in today’s job-hopping climate, that need might come at a moment’s notice.
For this reason, it’s important to have a good hiring strategy in place. Implement an interviewing and networking process that works, ensuring you have a promising resume or two on hand at all times just in case. If you need someone in a pinch, don’t hesitate to reach out to an industry staffing agency to inquire about temp workers who may be able to fill the gap quickly and eventually become full-time team members.