As Illinois’ fledgling marijuana industry slowly gets underway, some companies have begun hiring in anticipation of opening in the coming months, attracting a diverse set of candidates willing to take a chance on a business with an uncertain future so they can get in on the ground floor.
Take Rick Bower, 58, of downstate Dwight. After working for 31 years at commercial printing giant RR Donnelley, Bower has been hired as the inaugural director of warehousing at PharmaCann, where he will bring his expertise in workflow standardization and quality control to its Dwight and Hillcrest cultivation centers.
“I was looking, as people do at a certain age, for something with a little meaning,” Bower said of the career change. Bower, whose grandson’s 7-year-old cousin has a rare form of epilepsy helped by cannabis, said he tracked down the CEO to learn how he might get involved.
Bower’s position, wholly unfit for a bleary-eyed stoner, requires meticulous attention to detail to ensure compliance with strict government regulations.
“This is an opportunity to bring my skill sets to their processes, which haven’t been defined yet,” Bower said. “It’s a complete greenfield.”
Norah Scott, co-founder and chief human resources officer of Oak Park-based PharmaCann, said she has been “flooded with resumes” from applicants ranging from Ph.D. scientists to college and law school students willing to do anything for free.
The company expects to get seeds planted in late summer or early fall and would start selling at its dispensaries once the crop is ready about three months later. In addition to its two cultivation centers, PharmaCann has state permission to register dispensaries in Evanston, Schaumburg, North Aurora and Ottawa.
What many applicants have in common, Scott said, is personal stories about the medicinal promise of the drug.
“About 50 percent of the people I have interviewed, maybe more, have a family member or friend with a debilitating condition,” Scott said.
The market potential also is driving interest, though it comes with a high degree of risk. Approved in 2013, Illinois’ four-year medical marijuana pilot program expires in 2017 unless legislators approve an extension, giving companies just two years in operation. All companies are still in the registration phase.
If the program busts, employees are not just out of a job but also must contend with marijuana on their resumes; it remains illegal federally. And Illinois so far has sent approval letters to fewer than 2,600 patients who fall under its list of approved conditions — which, if left unchanged, may not generate enough patients to support the business, said Chris Walsh, managing and founding editor of Marijuana Business Daily, an industry publication.
But while the publication’s 2015 Factbook gives Illinois a “C” for stability, it gives it an “A” for opportunity because of the state’s large population and the large number of licenses allowed — 60 for dispensaries and 22 for cultivation centers. Walsh expects dispensary sales in the state to be $15 million to $30 million during its first full 12 months after opening, and if Illinois liberalizes the medical condition list to include more ailments, sales could reach $100 million, he said.
Once mature, Illinois’ medical marijuana companies should employ at least 1,000 people, Walsh said, and potentially 2,000 including ancillary jobs. Nationwide, the cannabis industry is expected to employ 46,000 to 60,000 people this year in dispensaries, cultivation centers, testing labs and infused product makers, according to the Factbook.
For Kalee Hooghkirk, 22, it is worth the gamble no matter the outcome.
“If I help one person and one family, that outweighs any negative consequences that can happen to me,” said Hooghkirk, who lives in Elgin.
Hooghkirk, who works as a skin-care trainer for a massage and facial franchise, said she has been taking online classes at the Cannabis Training Institute to prepare for a career in medical marijuana, which she believes could have helped her grandfather, who had lung cancer and passed away from complications of chemotherapy.
Hooghkirk said she has taken classes like “cannabis for clinicians” and “cannabis in the endocannabinoid system,” which she hopes helps her get hired in marijuana education or managing a dispensary.
Her parents thinks she’s crazy for pursuing the industry, she said. But she sees great opportunity.
“It seems like there are a lot of high-ranking women in these companies,” she said. “There isn’t a glass ceiling.”
One of the more visible jobs are “budtenders,” marijuana baristas who help customers choose from the menu of medicinal options.
PharmaCann’s Scott, who uses the more clinical term “dispensary technicians,” said the most important qualification for that post is compassion. She values applicants with social services backgrounds or experience in health care or pharmacy.
Robert McCarthy, 30, hopes to land a job as a budtender. As one of the approved patients to get medical marijuana in Illinois, McCarthy, who has glaucoma and suffers from epilepsy, said his compassion for fellow patients is “a huge part of what makes me qualified for it.”
McCarthy, who has had trouble finding a job since graduating from Columbia College with a degree in radio, paid $249 to take a 3.5-hour budtending seminar this spring hosted by recruiting firm HempStaff, which taught attendees about the state law, how to talk to patients and the different cannabis types. He hopes the certification, which is not regulated by any overseeing body, helps his resume stand out.
Several staffing firms have emerged to connect passionate applicants with marijuana job openings, including Chicago-based CannaMed Talent Solutions.
Given the industry’s infancy, the key is to find applicants with relevant backgrounds in other fields, said Wendy Berger Shapiro, an industrial real estate developer who co-founded the firm with two recruiting professionals last fall. Compliance managers, for example, might come from banking or law.
But some matches aren’t so obvious. For example, Shapiro was initially surprised that applicants to become trimmers, who hand-trim the leaves and stems from the marijuana flower, ranged in age from 20s to 70s.
“This is a job where you are seated most of the day,” Shapiro said, “so for somebody who is a little bit older, it makes sense.”
Kristan McGuigan, director of cultivation at PharmaCann’s Hillcrest facility, was hired in May after a 20-year career in ornamental horticulture. McGuigan, who had worked as a grower at Ball Horticultural Co. and in product development at Syngenta Flowers, said cannabis “had just been a page in one of my plant books” before she started exploring the career jump.
McGuigan, 40, said she was excited about the breeding work being done in cannabis and the opportunity to help professionalize the industry. That includes enabling large-scale production by bringing in equipment from traditional ornamental horticulture, she said.
McGuigan didn’t share her plans with her family or friends until she got the job because she was unsure how some would react, but she said she was overwhelmed by their support.
PharmaCann is now getting ready to hire full-time cultivation technicians to maintain the plants. McGuigan said prior greenhouse growing experience is a plus. She encourages avid home gardeners and people who have worked in garden centers or tended community gardens to apply.
PharmaCann and several other companies emphasized that more than experience, they are seeking certain character traits: integrity, strong work ethic, reliability, organizational skills, passion for the medicinal potential of the product, and the ability to follow rules.
Prior cannabis experience is not a prerequisite, many say — and in some cases can be a liability.
One of the quirks of applying for a marijuana job is that touting familiarity with the product, either from using it or growing it, could hurt your chances.
“No employer wants to know that they’re hiring someone who has broken the law,” said Dan Linn, director of government and public relations of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He recommends saving such disclosures for a face-to-face interview if it seems appropriate.
Jared Boyar, who plans to open the dispensary Floramedex in Leyden Township, intends to request disclosure of applicants’ drug use history when he starts hiring in August and to subject employees to random drug testing.
“If an applicant has prior experience lawfully dispensing marijuana, then we look at it favorably,” he said. “However, we are not interested hiring personnel with a history of unlawful use.” Boyar expects to employ 10 to 15 people as managers, patient caregivers, administrative staff and security personnel. Pharmacists, pharmacy techs, nursing professionals, retail sales personnel and administrative assistants all have relevant skills for the jobs, he said.
Bradley Vallerius, director of communications for Downers Grove-based Revolution Enterprises, which has cultivation centers in downstate Barry and Delavan, said prior experience growing medical marijuana can work for or against an applicant.
“Sometimes an applicant can profess to have so much expertise that we worry about their ability to follow direction,” Vallerius said.
Revolution plans a job fair in the coming months to fill a variety of posts, including a culinary scientist to design pot-infused edibles, Vallerius said. The company recently hired two writers with policy experience to draft pamphlets and educational materials.
“The reality is that we are dealing with communities that have been socialized to believe that cannabis is evil, so part of our job is to educate them,” Vallerius said.
Part of forming good relations with the local community is ensuring safety, which made security hires a critical part of the equation.
Lt. Col. Pete Farrell was a decorated military officer before taking a job as director of corporate security of PharmaCann. He was looking to do something exciting after he retired from the Army, but the Midwest economy seemed depressed and “flat.”
“You always watch commuters in cars, and they look dead,” Farrell, 46, said.
Farrell said he was drawn to the entrepreneurial energy of the new industry — though he had some reservations.
“What’s it going to look like, all tie-dyed and lackadaisical?” he recalls thinking. “But it’s not. These are really skilled people, professionals with exceptional backgrounds and accomplishments, that is what really drew me in.”
Farrell will supervise external and internal security, plus courier functions, at PharmaCann’s cultivation centers and dispensaries. That means drawing on his military experience to implement a layered security system of deterrents, guards, reconnaissance and closed-circuit TVs, but also, he highlights, building a team and culture in which “everyone has to be vigilant, proactive and do the right thing.”
The uncertainty of the industry’s future “is scary,” he said. “But I’m not jumping out of airplanes anymore.”