Where the jobs are: America’s pot industry

The U.S. job market has had its share of ups and downs lately, but in the budding U.S. marijuana industry, these are apparently high times on the employment front.

A growing number of Americans are finding work in a multibillion-dollar industry that has been legally sanctioned — and only in some states — for less than a decade.

Cannabis-related companies now employ an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 full- and part-time workers, according to a new report by Marijuana Business Daily. The trade publication based its findings on two key data points gathered though its yearly survey of industry professionals: the estimated number of companies that operate exclusively or largely in the marijuana market, and the average number of workers in each segment of the industry.

If its estimates are accurate, legal pot businesses now employ almost as many workers in the U.S. as there are flight attendants (108,000 as of May 2015), web developers (127,000) and librarians(131,000).

Fueling the explosive employment growth has been a surge in the number and size of firms that either deal directly with cannabis (the so-called plant-touching side of the industry) and “ancillary companies” that serve them, such as cultivation-lighting businesses, vaporizer manufacturers and professional services firms.

The industry now generates an estimated $3 billion plus in yearly sales, and it’s forecast to only grow as more states legalize pot and more investment capital flows into the business. More than 20 states allow medical use of marijuana, and four also allow recreational use.

This fall, voters in a half dozen states — including California, the country’s most-populous state — will decide on ballot measures that would legalize pot for medical or recreational uses.

The employment data “shows that this industry is becoming an economic engine for the country,” said Chris Walsh, editorial director of Marijuana Business Daily.

“We’re really just scratching the surface in terms of jobs in this industry,” he added.

The burgeoning pot business has plenty of jobs that are ripe for the picking, although in many cases they actually involve picking. The industry still has a large number of seasonal workers, particularly on the pot-growing side. Growers tend to staff up during harvesting and planting periods and scale down during other times.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of dispensaries has generated demand for store managers and so-called budtenders, the cannabis industry’s answer to the barista. What’s more, the surging demand for cannabis-infused edibles has led to stronger hiring of workers with food production experience.

Lawyers, software engineers, accountants, geneticists and a host of people with other types of advanced degrees (and transferable skills) now work in the cannabis industry or for firms serving marijuana-related businesses, sometimes exclusively.

“The industry is going through an extraordinary period of advancement in sophistication. Cannabis has been widely consumed in the U.S. for decades, but the industry has not benefited from many of the technological and business-process advancements that have happened in virtually every other industry,” said John Kagia, executive vice president of industry analytics for New Frontier, which specializes in data and analytics for the cannabis industry.

“We are now seeing a higher caliber of professionals coming into the space and bringing their skills and experience from other markets,” said Kagia.

It behooves job seekers to look before you leap, or at least try to break into the market. As it has matured in some states, many employers have gotten choosier when it comes to hiring, in many cases preferring employees who have actual cannabis-industry experience.

“A lot of companies are starting to look for people with industry experience, and that doesn’t include having grown it at home or having sold it from your basement,” quipped Walsh.

The marijuana business is one of the most highly regulated industries in the country, and the rules governing it vary from state to state and continue to evolve. It is also largely a cash-only business because federal law prohibits banks and credit unions from taking marijuana money. That, of course, creates another level of complexity for employers.

Some states, such as Colorado, require workers to be licensed, which means they must meet a number of requirements, such as passing criminal background checks and being current on taxes, child support and student loan debt. Colorado now has 27,000 occupational licensees, up from about 16,000 at the end of 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

“Marijuana is now, for the most part, mainstream acceptable and with that the talent pool has followed suit,” said Tripp Keber, founder and chief executive officer of Dixie Brands.

The Denver-based company manufactures cannabis-infused products, from chocolates to balms. It had three employees, including Keber, when he founded the company six years ago and now has more than 70 full-time workers. It plans to hire another 30 full-time employees this year as it expands into four new states.

Keber has even gotten resumes from workers with Ivy League-credentials, but he conceded that some stigma is still associated with making a living in the cannabis business, and that might be off-putting to some potential employees. “Canna-bigotry still exists” he said.


Petey Wheatstraw

Hi, my name is Petey Wheatstraw. I'm an avid marijuana smoker, writer, devoted father and non-profit minion-- not necessarily in that order. A Chicago native I've lived in the Bay Area since 1996. Click Here for Free Cannabis