By Diane Eastabrook, Next Avenue Contributor
At a cannabis industry job fair near Chicago in October, IT specialist Pam Lefkowitz, 59, was tenth in line to talk to a recruiter from Green Thumb Industries, a Chicago-based cannabis packaged goods retailer with stores across the U.S.
Calmly waiting her turn, Lefkowitz exercised the kind of patience she often uses when dealing with cranky clients. After 25 years working in tech, she’s desperate for a career reboot. “When was the last time you called your IT guy and said everything is amazing?” she asked.
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Lefkowitz was among 500 eager job seekers passing out resumés to recruiters from cannabis dispensaries, laboratories and ancillary companies at the job expo at Oakton Community College. Many were boomers who admitted getting high on weed in their teens and twenties, but now see cannabis as a new career frontier.
‘Limitless Opportunities’ in the Cannabis Field
“It’s not filled with potheads,” said Lefkowitz. “There’s business to be had for those of us who have imagination and creativity.”
Indeed. Dina Rollman, a senior vice president at Green Thumb Industries, screening candidates for openings in accounting, IT and retailing at her five-year-old firm, said: “There are limitless opportunities.” And Larry Doria, from the suburban Chicago security firm P4 Solutions, scanned the crowd for prospective dispensary guards. “I’m looking for retired cops or really anyone who just wants to work hard,” he said.
As an industry, weed is on a growth spurt. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 11 states and medical marijuana is legal in 33. New Frontier Data, which tracks the industry, projects U.S. cannabis sales will more than double to $30 billion over the next five years. During that time, the number of jobs in this industry is projected to double — to more than 740,000.
Here’s an example: Vangst, a Denver-based cannabis recruitment company, has about 400 job openings nationwide posted on its website. They range from senior management positions to sales associates (known as budtenders) to laboratory quality control managers to chemists to web developers to horticulturists.
The skill sets required to work in the weed business are as varied as the jobs themselves.
Cultivation jobs, which involve growing and harvesting marijuana, require a fairly extensive knowledge of plant science and cannabis. Dispensaries like to hire people with knowledge of cannabis, in addition to retail experience.
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But jobs in manufacturing and corporate-level positions such as human resources, accounting and finance require no experience in weed, just competency. Vangst CEO Karson Humiston says that’s where applicants age 50 and older have an edge. “Many companies are hiring for senior-level positions that require decades of experience,” said Humiston.
While skill sets required to work in weed are fairly consistent everywhere, regulations for employment vary from state to state.
For instance, Colorado and Nevada allow the sale of medical and recreational weed, but they also have some of the toughest laws in the nation. These states require anyone who has direct contact with cannabis be a state resident, over 21, pass a background check and obtain a registration card.
Medical and recreational marijuana are also legal in Maine, but an annual background check is all that’s required to work in the cannabis business there. California, where medical and recreational weed are legal, has no requirements for employment in the industry. The same is true in New York, which allows the sale of medical marijuana only.
It’s possible to work remotely in states where weed isn’t legal if your job doesn’t put you in direct contact with the product. That might include IT or marketing positions. But, Humiston said, those opportunities are rare.
Salaries: A Guide to Green in Weed
Without getting too much in the weeds, it’s fair to say that salaries in cannabis are becoming more competitive with other industries, especially for high-demand jobs.
According to Vangst, a cultivation director with little weed experience could make about $50,000 a year. But, someone with significant experience could command up to $250,000.
Dispensary store managers can make between $41,000 and $100,000 annually, depending on experience. Entry level sales jobs typically pay $12 to $16 an hour.
If you don’t have experience working with weed, you might want to see if a local college has classes that could help. Some schools are now offering courses and certificate programs to help job candidates get a leg up in the industry.
Taking a Course in Cannabis
Oakton Community College recently launched a one-semester program to train students for work in cannabis dispensaries. The seven-course class teaches students about pharmacology, cannabis law and the business of marijuana. It costs just over $1,600 for in-district students; those over 60 get a discount and pay about half that.
Jason Reese, 59, is among the first 100 students to enroll in the Oakton Community College program this fall. He was laid off from his job as a compliance officer with a pharmaceutical company last summer.
Reese thinks these classes will help prepare him for a similar job at a cannabis company. “There are a lot of parallels when it comes to regulations. I’ve noticed some of the companies are hiring for the same kind of positions that drug companies have,” said Reese.
Others, who came of age when weed was an illicit part of the counterculture movement, hope to carve out a niche in the still nascent industry.
After decades working in real estate and publicity, job fair attendee Paul Katz, 66, said he wants to try his hand as a cannabis chef. “I could consult chefs on how to cook with cannabis or I could be a personal chef in someone’s home,” he said. “There are so many ways I could go with this!”