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Ravenous for help, industry turns to cannabis temp workers

Supervisor Dale Ramos moves buds from the processing room to the dry room at Butterbrand Farms on Friday, August 18, 2017, in San Francisco, Calif. Butterbrand employs about half temp workers. SOURCE: Liz Hafalia

Pueblo, Colo. resident Patti Weber, 51, never imagined she’d be working in cannabis. But that’s what she’s been doing since July 26, her first day as a temporary worker at the local medical marijuana tablet company Stratos.

Weber is a certified medical assistant, but after she and her husband moved from Clearwater, Florida, to Pueblo, she couldn’t get hired in her field. Now, she’s working in Stratos’ packaging department, and occasionally pitches in on harvest-related tasks.

“I tried to apply for jobs, not only in my field but in cannabis, and I couldn’t get a job anywhere,” she said. It wasn’t until she signed up with a weed temp agency that she found work.

As more states legalize recreational and medical marijuana, new cannabis startups and expanding pot businesses alike are hungry for employees. Currently, there are roughly 165,000 jobs in the cannabis industry, according to the publication Marijuana Business Daily. Research firm New Frontier Data predicts that by 2020, that number could swell to 280,000.

Folks in the hiring industry see that rapid growth as an opportunity. There are already more than 15 agencies in the U.S. offering hiring services — including temp placements and executive recruitment — to cannabis companies.

Karson Humiston founded Vangst Talent Network, a cannabis-industry temp and recruitment agency based in Denver in 2015 after attending trade shows and realizing few resources could help people find work in the weed world.

“It’s been really exciting, filling tons of jobs in the space,” she said.

As in any industry, cannabis temporary employees work for the agency, not the company where they’re placed, and tend toward lower-skilled tasks, such as trimming dried flower buds, packaging and labeling finished products, or driving delivery trucks. Some of those jobs — trimming, especially — come and go with the harvest, but temp workers can be a major asset when it’s crunch time, said Bradley Orr, Stratos’ CEO.

For much of the year, five of Stratos’ 30 employees are temps. During harvest periods, Orr hires up to 15.

“We brought temp workers in initially because we needed help right away,” Orr said. Since then, “It’s become more a strategic decision, allowing us to ‘try before we buy.’”

Stratos has since hired several temp staffers as full-time employees, and some have advanced into management roles.

Weber said she’s glad her temp agency connected her with Stratos. The packaging department offers different tasks every day, so temp workers find a lot of variety in their work.

“I love coming to work every day,” she said.

Temp agency executives say it’s a complicated business, because each state’s marijuana employment laws are different. Colorado and Oregon require cannabis workers to obtain badges before they can take a job, for example. Agencies are just beginning to sort out how California’s cannabis employment regulations will work, said Kara Bradford, chief talent officer at Viridian Staffing in Washington state.

Before, “it was ‘passion cannabis’ folks. Now we see employees coming in who aren’t even consumers.”

In California, “everything’s in the influx period, where the grey market is getting filtered out,” said Kyle Arfsten, Vangst’s senior vice president of sales. California currently has about 43,000 jobs in cannabis, and he expects that figure to grow 20 percent over the next year.

There are numerous California startups in the works, and while some are hiring before they launch, others are waiting until legalization takes effect, Humiston said.

Ben Bradley, operations director for the trade group California Cannabis Industry Association, said membership has spiked since legalization Proposition 64 passed in November. His group is working closely with legislators as well as staffing agencies to make sure the transition to legal weed goes smoothly.

Legalization is also changing the kinds of workers interested in the cannabis industry.

Before, “it was ‘passion cannabis’ folks,” Bradley said. “Now we see employees coming in who aren’t even consumers.”

Some of those newcomers are drawn by the get-rich promises of the so-called Green Rush. New Frontier Data predicts that adult recreational pot sales will jump to $11.2 billion in 2020 — up from $2.6 billion in 2016.
But staffing experts said few people are likely to make money quickly, and most pot-industry employees — especially temps — aren’t seeing a trickle down effect.

Cannabis workers in Washington often earn a bit less than they would in comparable jobs in other industries, because the state tax rates are so high, Bradford said. In Colorado, where the post-legalization market has stabilized, employees are generally earning market rate.

Weber said she’s earning enough to live on, and she’s found a new career that she loves.

“I wouldn’t look for another job in my field, now that I’ve found this,” she said.

Beth Winegarner is a Bay Area freelance journalist.