By Ally Marotti

Chicago Tribune

Marijuana companies are on the prowl for new employees, but experience growing weed in the basement likely won’t fly on a résumé.

The bar for entry-level positions is moving higher as marijuana companies grow so fast it is no longer practical to train workers new to the industry. Growers and dispensaries increasingly want employees with academic training. The result: More colleges are starting to offer, for lack of a better term, a degree in growing marijuana.

“You’re going to need somebody who’s got some knowledge (that can) then adapt that to the facility,” said Paul Chialdikas, vice president of sales and marketing at Bedford Grow, which has a cultivation facility in Bedford Park, Illinois. “Timing is going to be critical for us to grab an employee that has experience. … We need them now.”

Most employees that have entered Illinois’ young marijuana industry did so either with experience earned in the black market or in states with more mature cannabis programs, like Colorado or California. Often, they have not worked with the plant at all.

Brian Kirkland and Jake Tracy started at Bedford Grow about three years ago without any experience. Kirkland was a butcher, and Tracy was in landscaping. Like all new employees at the facility, they started as trimmers and have since worked their way up. For the past two harvests — or about six months — Kirkland and Tracy, now assistant cultivators, have each been in charge of the crop in one of Bedford Grow’s four grow rooms.

Sunglasses on, Kirkland moved among marijuana plants as blazing grow lights beat down, preparing a solution that would deliver nutrients to the plumping buds. The plants in his grow room were about a month from harvest, and they needed the food to produce dense, flavorful buds. Kirkland knew the solution would clog the tubes normally used to water the plants, so he had to feed them by hand.

In a plant-filled room nearby, Tracy cleaned his water lines. The plants in Tracy’s room were younger than Kirkland’s, maybe two months old. “In about a week, they’ll be ready to start growing buds,” he said.

Kirkland and Tracy learned how to tend to the highly valued marijuana plants by apprenticing under the facility’s head growers. Soon Bedford Grow will add more cultivation rooms and need more growers to manage them. On a recent afternoon, Chialdikas opened a door at the facility to a sprawling room used for storage. “This is the opportunity for us when the market goes (recreational) to add eight more growing rooms,” he said, looking out across the mostly empty space.

Degrees in marijuana

Schools around the country are rolling out cannabis courses or degree programs. Northern Michigan University launched a four-year medicinal plant chemistry degree in the fall of 2017. That first semester, 20 students participated. Enrollment was up to 220 a year later. The University of California at Davis started offering a class on how cannabis compounds affect the human body last fall. Marijuana law classes are becoming more common, too, with courses at schools in Colorado, Ohio and Chicago.

More colleges and universities see the advantages to training their students for the advancing industry, but there are limits to how quickly they can roll out new programs.

Almost daily, Karen Midden, interim dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, gets a call from someone with a question about the cannabis program the school announced last year. Medical cannabis growers also call in search of students who know a thing or two about running a greenhouse.

“People think it’s some magical thing you have to learn to grow marijuana,” she said. In reality, she said, some of the same principals students learn about greenhouses or soil can be applied to cannabis.

Southern Illinois plans to bundle classes it already offers, plus a few new cannabis-specific courses, into a 30-credit hour cannabis certificate program. But it likely won’t be available until the end of the year, Midden said.

Some agriculture alumni have pursued work in the industry. Jacob Heller graduated from Southern Illinois’ production horticulture program and worked at a commercial-scale indoor farm after graduation. He got into the cannabis industry in early 2016 through a job at Bedford Grow.

Now, the 27-year-old is cultivation manager at the Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, grow facility for Chicago-based Grassroots Cannabis.

“I learned a ton when I first started working with the plants. The whole cannabis industry evolved separate from traditional horticulture,” Heller said. “But also once I learned the method of what the head growers wanted and what they expected, I was able to draw on a lot of my … experience to improve processes and make and grow healthier plants.”

‘No idea how to react’

Last month, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, outside Chicago, said it was launching a program that would train students how to work with medical marijuana patients.

Quality budtenders, as dispensary workers are often called, are in high demand as the number of patients shopping at dispensaries increases. The job is much more complicated than just selling the weed, said Chris Torres, patient care specialist at the Greengate Chicago dispensary. Budtenders work with customers to find the right marijuana strains and products to treat serious illnesses.

There’s no shortage of people interested in working at a marijuana dispensary, Torres said. But most job applicants are what Torres calls “cannabis enthusiasts” — in other words, they know about weed, but they don’t know how chronically ill patients should use the drug.

“This business is super serious. … I have people literally break down at the table. At that point, you become a therapist,” said Torres, who worked with Oakton on its program. “A cannabis enthusiast is going to have no idea how to react in that situation.”

If approved, Oakton’s program would teach participants about chronic illness, so they’re prepared to handle those encounters.

More programs

Potential job candidates have also used online or daylong certificate programs to ready them for entry-level positions in the industry.

For-profit Cannabis Training University, launched in 2009 and based in Denver, plans to roll out more advanced online course offerings this year, said CEO Jeff Zorn. The four-hour crash courses Florida-based HempStaff offers throughout the country are meant to be used as pre-employment training, to get potential dispensary workers interview-ready, said its CEO James Yagielo.

The marijuana industry has become a legitimate career path, and it is getting more competitive, said Morgan Fox, media relations director at the National Cannabis Industry Association. Having good budtenders also could give dispensaries a competitive advantage, said Bethany Gomez, managing director of the cannabis research firm Brightfield Group. Though budtender knowledge is rarely a patient’s deciding factor on where to shop, 7 in 10 people who responded to a 2017 Brightfield survey said they seriously considered budtender recommendations.

“As these companies ramp up and volume increases and the number of patients increase, it’s critical for business to have good people in place there,” Gomez said. “If they don’t, the patients aren’t going to come back.”