Growing through a labor shortage

“The Great Resignation” is affecting just about every industry in the country, but cannabis is still growing strong

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Cannabis With American Flag High Quality
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It isn’t news at this point so much as common knowledge: Businesses are struggling to hire the help they need. Restaurants, bars, cafes, grocery stores, gas stations, retail shops, and others spanning different industries all are struggling to fill empty positions at a time when there are more than seven million unemployed Americans. It seems that inside just about every commercial window hangs a “Help Wanted” or “Now Hiring” sign. 

Except, that is, in the windows of cannabis businesses. The cannabis industry has been largely insulated from what is becoming known as “The Great Resignation.” According to a recent report from Leafly, just last year, the cannabis industry added thousands of new jobs in places like Colorado—roles ranging from retail, to cultivation, marketing, testing, packaging, and management.

That growth probably would have happened anyway, according to Jay Czarkowski, a founding partner at Canna Advisors, a cannabis business consultancy in Boulder. But the fact that the cannabis industry was deemed “essential” by state government during COVID absolutely accelerated the industry’s growth—for a multitude of reasons, according to Czarkowski. 

“While restaurants shut down entirely, cannabis dispensaries never shut down,” he points out. “And there’s just so many job opportunities in cannabis.”

That not only means that the people working in cannabis got to keep their jobs through quarantine and the shutdown, but it also made the industry a refuge for many employees who’d lost their jobs or who simply wanted a change. 

“When COVID shut things down a lot of people retooled or relocated, and they went out to look for other opportunities,” Czarkowski says. 

And the cannabis industry was ripe with such opportunities. So ripe, Czarkowski says, that some cannabis businesses actually [I]are[I] struggling to fill positions. But not because people don’t want them—because they can’t fill them fast enough.

“I don’t think there will ever be a problem with these jobs not being desirable,” Czarkowski says. 

According to the Leafly report, Colorado’s cannabis industry added 4,338 jobs in 2020 alone. In California, where the most new jobs were created by the cannabis industry, that number was 23,707. All told, across states with some form of legal cannabis, more than 77,000 jobs were created last year, bringing the total number of people employed by the cannabis industry in the U.S. to 321,000. 

“To put that in perspective: In the United States there are more legal cannabis workers than electrical engineers,” the report reads. 

Cannabis is drawing all kinds of people from diverse professions and industries, Czarkowski sayys. He uses his own Vice President of Marketing as an example: She came to Canna Advisors from a Fortune 500 company, managing a $50 million budget with 40 people working under her, he says. 

“There’s people with real talent out there that really come from the corporate world that are certainly interested in cannabis,” Czarkowski says. 

Joe Wright, one of the co-owners of 14er Boulder, a vertically integrated artisanal cannabis company, has seen similar trends in his own business. 

“We definitely get people from different professional backgrounds,” Wright says. 

14er has had lawyers with MBA’s apply for positions in their dispensary, and people from tech that have applied to their sales department, he explains. 

“The number of people from other highly respected professions that are coming in that want an entry level position in cannabis is mind-boggling,” Wright says. “These are folks that are wanting to leave law, wanting to leave the professional sales group that they’re with, to make [less money] to work with us. But that’s just the risk that they’re willing to take.”

Wright believes that the power dynamic between employee and employer has shifted since the pandemic started. Pay doesn’t seem to be the most important factor to people anymore, he says. To Wright, it seems like people are more widely taking into account things like flexibility and fulfillment. 

“Monetary value is kind of taking a little bit of a backseat for just being happy in your position,” Wright says. “People are realizing that making 150 thousand and being miserable, it’s not worth it.” 

Cannabis business owners like Wright and Czarkowski also take really good care of their employees, which naturally attracts people to their industry as well. Wright likens growing healthy cannabis partnerships to growing healthy cannabis plants. 

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, he says, “it’s greener where you take care of it, where you water it, and you cultivate it.”

Of course, there’s also the draw of getting in on the ground floor of a budding new industry. Cannabis in the U.S. is only going to get bigger and more lucrative for those who’ve gotten in early. For many who lost or left their jobs during the pandemic, the prospect of shifting into an industry with as much potential as cannabis has, is attractive—even if it is still federally illegal. 

“As humans we’re constantly looking for something that’s a little bit more exciting and a little bit more colorful, if you will, a little bit more dangerous,” Wright says. “And I think cannabis represents that.”

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