‘Now Hiring’ Signs and Labor Shortages Are Being Seen in Cannabis as Well as Traditional Industries, but for a Different Reason

Although eight million Americans are out of work, employers are still begging for bodies. A National Federation of Independent Business survey showed that 42 percent of small businesses had jobs they couldn’t fill.
Written by 
Joan Oleck, Cannabis Journalist.
|Last Updated:

“Now hiring” is a sign of the times nationwide at hospitality and other low-and moderate-wage work sites. Not surprisingly, employers have taken steps to address the shortages. A current hiring sign at a Massachusetts Starbucks lists what, compared to the past, are spectacularly seductive benefits: health coverage with vision and dental; college tuition aid; paid time off; family leave; dependent-care reimbursement; even a 401(k) match.

The reasons why, in this (almost) post-pandemic environment, include child care needs; extra federal unemployment benefits; residual Covid fears about the workplace; and burnout from working two or three jobs at $7.25 per hour – the federal minimum wage.

Another reason that most people don’t think about here is the impact of nontraditional industries – like cannabis: As a recent MSNBC article pointed out, “Some younger workers are finding jobs in new fields, shrinking the labor pool for the industries they left behind.”

Cannabis is one such “new field.” Yet these companies too face a labor shortage, though not because people aren’t interested, says Kelsea Applebaum. She’s head of community partnerships at Vangst, the placement company focused on cannabis jobs.

“The shortage of labor is less because there are [not enough] people to fill them than that there’s such an influx of jobs right now,” Applebaum says. Lower-tier budtender, trimmer and packager positions s are especially in need of takers. Indeed, Applebaum says, Vangst’s GIGIS job site has 200 openings.

Not that lower-level cannabis job applicants aren’t being wooed with hourly pay rates — $14.50 to $17, according to Vangst’s annual salary survey. That’s equivalent to what Starbucks offers, and health coverage is generally included. (As for other Starbucks-level benefits, cannabis startups cannot yet afford them, Applebaum acknowledges.)

There are other advantages cannabis has, the Vangst exec contends. First, there’s obvious growth: “We are constantly seeing the industry grow in every market throughout the world,” notes Applebaum, who’s recruited for cannabis companies for five years across multiple countries. Another advantage: Applicants these days are looking for something, well, sexier.

“There’s a huge demand from people looking to get into cannabis, and they’re craving it because it’s new, it’s exciting and it also gives a lot of opportunities,” Applebaum says. At the height of the pandemic, cannabis also stayed stable while other industries collapsed. That’s a fascinating aspect, the Vangst exec says, because, “Cannabis went from being a question mark to being essential; and that just means that job-seekers are even more excited to get into the space.”

This is especially true at cannabis’s corporate level and ancillary non-plant-touching jobs. “I’ve never been unable to get an executive on the phone quicker than when I say ‘I work in cannabis,’” Applebaum says. “That’s not a joke! Everyone from Disney to Goldman Sachs to everywhere in between: it doesn’t matter what multimillion-dollar organization they’re coming from. Cannabis is exciting, and they’re at least willing to hear about it, even if they’re not ready to make the transition.”

Of course, the employment picture in cannabis has its own down sides: Younger applicants have to be at least 21 to even apply – leading Applebaum to suggest that they first secure a college degree and enter the industry with that advantage. A degree, she says, may be unnecessary in cultivation but definitely helps with retail positions; finance jobs require one.

With higher-tier managerial jobs, there’s no shortage of candidates; instead, the big issue there, Applebaum says, is compensation. Cannabis companies can’t match the levels highly experienced professionals are used to. “The thing about cannabis is that it’s so new it humbles people,” Applebaum says. “People that are used to making $400,000 as an executive at an organization outside the industry come into cannabis and have to take a pay cut because the salaries aren’t there yet.”

Then there’s the matter of training in cannabis practices and politics: At a midlevel, Applebaum says, a retail manager coming from Target with a $22-an-hour salary, has to work his or her way up, and, to start, will likely have to drop down to a budtender level with the $14 to $17 pay rate that comes with it.

That pay drop is a key factor in cannabis’s labor shortage, to the extent it exists.

In addition, cannabis’s continuing “stoner” stigma in some quarters may feed into further reluctance, as may lower salaries in states just ramping up compared to the earliest ones, like California and Colorado.

On the up side, benefits are increasing in the cannabis world. “I would say 90 percent of the companies we work with offer benefit coverage,” Applebaum says, “which makes the transition [from traditional companies] a lot easier.” She lists maternity/paternity leave, 401(k)s and dental and vision as today’s sample benefits, whereas when she started out, “It was rare for companies to offer health, especially for hourly employees.”

Overall, Applebaum says, the outlook is positive. “I would say that much more this past year [of failures due to Covid] has been people realizing that this isn’t a business that is failing. It’s a business that is growing, and very quickly.”

Joan Oleck
Joan Oleck
Cannabis Journalist
Joan Oleck is a freelance writer currently specializing in the cannabis industry and cannabis tech. She has been an editor and reporter on staff for such publications as Forbes.com, Business Week, Newsday and The Detroit News. She won the Jesse Neal Award for best feature series in a trade publication, Restaurant Business, and a GLAAD Award for a Salon story about discrimination in adoption against single and gay parents

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