It may seem like high times for the cannabis industry but behind the scenes there are serious challenges.
Despite Justice Department threats to crack down on the legal marijuana business under the Trump administration, the industry is projected to employ more than a quarter of a million people by 2020, according to a report from New Frontier Data, a cannabis industry market analysis firm.
Long legal in many states for medical purposes, seven states including Nevada have since legalized cannabis for recreational use. Several more have legalization measures on the ballot.
The problem? The industry lacks trained employees to keep up with growth, leaving customers with ill-informed sales people and subpar experiences at dispensaries.
Trained employees are hard to find in such a new industry, said Lucas Farrell, a buyer at Blüm Reno, a medical dispensary owned by Nevada-based Terra Tech Corp., a medical cannabis producer. That’s less than ideal for a growing business.
“It is always more efficient from a business standpoint to hire those with prior experience or knowledge of the industry,” Farrell said. “It cuts the money and time spent on training.”
Most business owners simply don’t have the time to train new hires on every aspect of running a dispensary, said Rosie Yagielo, co-founder of HempStaff, a medical marijuana recruiting and dispensary training company.
Add to that the patchwork of state-level laws governing the industry and it creates significant training challenges. States with the longest running programs have the most experienced employees, Yagielo said, and in states with newer programs formal training can be a mandatory part of the employee process. But when it’s not, it can lead to employees seeking training on their own.
“Some of these states are putting out these requirements but they’re not actually telling anybody who they need to go to for training because that would put them in the position of having to accredit somebody,” Yagielo said.
Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, putting it in the same category as heroin and cocaine. That makes many states leery to accredit employees for fear of running afoul of federal laws.
“So what they do is they say you have to figure out what you’re going to do for training,” Yagielo said, leaving many employees to shop around themselves. And business owners will require certification but without offering training themselves. The result is a subpar crop of informal training delivered via books, websites and amateur YouTube videos.
Researchers published a report in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research that found only 55 percent of dispensary employees have been formally trained. Of those, only 20 percent learned about specialized medical or scientific information. Improved training and knowledge are vital to the continued growth of the business, Yagielo said. Bad reviews lead to a decline in customer returns.
Dispensary agents, or budtenders as some are becoming known in the recreational side of the business, need a broad set of skills and product knowledge to put customers at ease and provide advice for what works best. “They’re an educator, they’re a counselor, they’re a product specialist,” Yagielo said. “They’ve got a lot of things going on all in the same conversation.”
While Terra Tech Corp. would prefer already trained employees, it’s not realistic for such a new industry. Rather than requiring new hires to gain certification on their own, the company has developed its own training program that covers the legal codes that apply to the cannabis industry as well as identifying and explaining common cannabinoids.
However, not all companies are following their lead. This is where organizations like HempStaff come in.
“In our class we’re teaching them the biology of the plant, the biology of the body, the pharmacology of those products,” Yagielo said. “And then we’re giving them a test at the end to ensure that they actually processed this information and walked out of there with the knowledge that we believe a business owner is looking for.”
While training can be done online, a classroom setting is often the best environment to learn in. “You get more diverse information if the trainer is standing in front of you,” she said. “Our [programs] are always customized to the state we’re training in because there are state specific laws. So when we go into Maryland, we’re teaching the law as it applies to Maryland.”
Just as with corporate learning in other industries, training is best when it’s directly applied to the specifics of business. For HempStaff, training goes beyond merely absorbing information through reading or watching videos. In order to ensure the best training possible, HempStaff requires trainers have a minimum of five years in the industry in dispensary cultivation or processing and two years as a dispensary manager.
“When you’re in a classroom full of 75 people all asking questions all at once, because of the information that you’re presenting to them, that trainer needs to have that experience to be able to answer those questions from their past experience in addition to their own education,” Yagielo said.
Just as with any employee in any industry, it’s critical that employees walk away from training more knowledgeable about the product to sell it with conviction. As the industry grows, it’s that mix of knowledge and heart that will best help cardholders, as customers are known in the medical cannabis industry.
“If there’s a passion for the plant [and] a compassion for the person, and if you can take all of that and wrap it up with some education then you’ve got a person that is going to be able to take care of your cardholder,” Yagielo said.
Marygrace Schumann is an an editorial intern for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.