Atlantic City, N.J.—When James Alderin graduated from the University of Nevada at Reno last year, he first went into political campaigns. But with time, he shifted his goals—hoping instead to open up a social cannabis lounge, recently legalized in the state. He enrolled in a 6-month online program at the university to learn about the industry. He was passionate about the subject, but there was more to it than that.
“There is a lot of money to be made in this industry,” he said.
The big idea: The cannabis job market is in the middle of an explosion, as many states move to legalize both medical and recreational use of the drug. Degrees, certificates, and certifications related to cannabis study also are on the rise, offering workers a way to stand out in a crowded field. But whether the industry can provide good jobs and solid wages for the long haul is still a developing question.
The whole industry can feel a bit like a gold rush.
On the ground: That was certainly the energy at a recent cannabis career fair at Stockton University, just outside Atlantic City, New Jersey. The state is just beginning to offer non-medical dispensary licenses.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get in on the ground floor,” Tara Sargente, the founder of Blazin’ Bakery, told the crowd.
Companies sent representatives from across the state and as far away as Miami to get their name out and recruit potential employees. Students and other attendees circled tables, making conversation and signing their names to lists.
Stockton is one of the few universities in the United States that offers a cannabis program and minor. Started in 2018, the program has graduated about 60 students and a hundred are currently enrolled. Graduates have gone on to work in medical dispensaries, as cultivators, and even in cannabis-related insurance companies.
The details: The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep track of cannabis-related job growth, because of federal bans on that data. But Leafly, a private company that tracks the industry and also does ecommerce for cannabis, estimates there are 321,000 legal cannabis workers in the country and that the sector added 80,000 jobs last year.
If correct, those estimates make cannabis the fastest growing industry in America. That would mean there are more cannabis workers in the country than there are electrical engineers, dentists, and paramedics.
Companies say that the industry is competitive. Many people see cannabis as a fun and growing field, and aligned with their interests. It can be hard for applicants to stand out—and especially hard for people to come in with the skills employers really want, which usually involve some experience with a drug that is still a Schedule I controlled substance.
“People want you to have experience,” said Brendon Robinson, co-founder of 420NJEvents. “‘I sold weed on the corner of 3rd and 4th Ave for the last 20 years?’ They’re not going to give you credit for that.”
Training programs flower
Training and education programs aim to bridge that gap. One player in the education space is Green Flower, which runs cannabis education programs both independently and in partnership with universities across the country, including the University of Nevada at Reno, where Alderin attended. Programs are typically 6 months long, online only, and cost about $3,000. Students have the chance to focus on law, cultivation, policy, and other topics.
“What most people don’t understand is the cannabis industry is the most heavily regulated industry that exists currently. It’s enormously heavy-handed in its regulation which requires a deep level of knowledge to understand, because if you can’t operate in compliance, you can’t operate, period,” said Max Simon, CEO of Green Flower.
“It’s a very nuanced, diverse, complicated industry as well which means there’s a tremendous need for specialized talent.”
For universities, the programs offer a chance to stand out. Northern Michigan University began offering a Green Flower partner course in 2020, and also has a major in medicinal plant chemistry and programs in plant-based wellness and indoor agriculture.
“A lot of this came from market analysis and from what we’re hearing from the Upper Peninsula region in terms of their talent needs,” said Steve VandenAvond, vice president of extended learning and community engagement at the university.
Smaller local alternatives are also cropping up. In New Jersey, Sarah Trent runs NJ Cannabis Certified, which offers a five-week program through several area community colleges. The cost is only $500.
“People want to do what they love,” said Trent. “For young people who may not have that four-year degree, there are a lot of entry-level jobs in the industry. And the industry is only at its very starting point here in New Jersey.”
However, none of these programs collect data on the job outcomes of graduates. Anecdotally, they say many students have found jobs in the industry and moved up in their careers.
Gut check: The question of what cannabis jobs actually offer to workers is yet another question. Whether an industry or job is personally fulfilling or fun is really only up to the employee. But wages can be more standardized.
In New Jersey, several sources said starting wages in retail, cultivation, and manufacturing for cannabis all start at or slightly above minimum wage, which is $12 in the state. At the Stockton career fair, long lines stretched from a table for the Botanist, a medical dispensary with locations in South Jersey. Representatives were hiring for four positions, all starting at $15 per hour, or a little under $32,000 per year.
However, compared to other industries, it’s easy to climb the ladder quickly, said Rob Mejia, an adjunct professor in the cannabis minor program at Stockton.
“They start out as jobs that hopefully turn into careers,” he said. “You start at the very beginning at a modest wage, but then the chances for you to increase your expertise, your salary, and get new opportunities in cannabis, they are developing rapidly.”
Organized labor is also a major part of the conversation about whether cannabis jobs can be good jobs. A September report from the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, estimated that workers could lose out on about $2,800 to $8,700 per year if the sector isn’t organized.
“It’s going to be very important that unions be a part of the cannabis industry,” said Sebastian Hickey, co-author of the report.
Unionized jobs in the industry pay significantly higher than the local minimum wage in many states, he said, and come with benefits like sick leave, paid time off, and retirement plans. That’s “not typical for traditional retail jobs, certainly not for agriculture.”
In New Jersey, some labor protections are built into the law, including requirements that companies remain neutral in the event of a union drive by their employees. The United Food and Commercial Workers union is the biggest player in the burgeoning industry, and Hugh Giordano, a representative with the New Jersey chapter, said the group is in negotiations with multiple dispensaries in the state.
There has also been an emphasis throughout the industry on trying to empower and work with people of color, specifically those from communities impacted by the War on Drugs. In New Jersey, the state is giving priority for licenses to businesses owned by minorities, people with cannabis-related convictions, and people who live in areas that are either economically disadvantaged or have had a high rate of marijuana arrests.
Parting thought: The next few years will be critical—setting the standards for what kinds of jobs the cannabis industry offers, who breaks in, and how. Whether it will continue to grow at a break-neck pace after broader legalization efforts remains to be seen.
“You’re going to have amazing growth for the next two years. Then you’re going to have steady growth up to about 10 years. Then at about the 10-year mark, we’ll have a mature market,” said Mejia of Stockton University, “and we’ll see how many businesses can survive.”