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Transferring Professional Skills to the Cannabis Industry

A man working in a greenhouse with marijuana plants.

​Back in 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana. As of today, 21 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and the U.S. cannabis industry is projected to generate roughly $32 billion in sales this year.

Like many industries, the cannabis sector has experienced challenges in hiring the talent it needs. What specific skills does the cannabis industry need, which skills are transferable from other industries, and how has the industry gone about attracting people with those skills? 

Much like the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry, the cannabis industry sells products to the public and needs to hire talent in areas including sales, marketing, retail/distribution, HR, finance/accounting and legal/compliance. Since the industry is relatively new, cannabis companies have often recruited and hired professionals who developed their skill sets in other industries.

For Hire: Skills Transferable to Cannabis Sector

Many professional skills translate well to the legal cannabis industry, including:

Experience working within a highly regulated sector. Experience and skills developed in highly regulated industries, such as pharmaceuticals, alcohol and banking, are readily transferable to the highly regulated cannabis industry. "Professionals operating in the cannabis space must understand regulatory nuances because compliance is a critical issue," said HR thought leader Tara Furiani, host of the "Not the HR Lady" podcast.

Startup experience. There's no playbook for working for a cannabis company—just like at tech startups. "The legal cannabis industry is rapidly changing, and there's a need for people who can wear many hats, think of creative solutions and collaborate well across disciplines and departments," said Matthew Indest, technical director of agronomy and plant improvement at cannabis provider Curaleaf. 

Sales and marketing skills. Cannabis companies are looking for experienced, effective sales and marketing people to stimulate product demand, facilitate purchases and generate revenue. That said, there are multiple legal restrictions regarding how and where cannabis products can be sold and marketed or advertised, often varying by state.

Finance and cost accounting expertise. Banking and managing cash flow have been constant hurdles for the U.S. cannabis industry, making finance and accounting skills among the most sought-after. As the American Bankers Association explains, "[T]he possession, distribution or sale of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, which means [providing banking services related to cannabis] could be considered money laundering."

A learning mindset. "Ultimately, the transferability of professional skills to the cannabis industry depends on individuals and their willingness to learn and adapt to changing circumstances," said Jessica Glazer, owner of MindHR, an executive placement, career coaching and resume writing company in Montreal that works with the cannabis industry.

A Cannabis Professional's 'Growth' Story

Many cannabis companies need employees with skills related to agriculture, including cultivating and processing practices, as well as people with expertise in plant science. As an example, Indest started his career working with crops such as sweet potatoes and moved on to working with cannabis. He first became interested in cannabis during his late teens while growing up in Louisiana.

"I became fascinated with plant science as a teenager but didn't have opportunities to work with cannabis at scale in my home state," Indest said.

However, his plant science experience with noncannabis crops would later become highly transferable to cannabis. "My work focusing on breeding schemes, improving crop color and flavor, and disease resistance all have applications in cannabis," he said.

When industrial hemp licenses became available in Louisiana, Indest decided to "take the opportunity to get hands-on with [growing] cannabis after spending 15 years in traditional agriculture."

Transferring Skills: 3 Big Challenges

Despite its similarities with the CPG industry, cannabis is unlike other industries in several respects. Cannabis companies are generally small-scale enterprises and often lack clearly defined job roles.
"Many cannabis companies have less than 200 employees, and there are many roles in which a professional will likely struggle to adapt if they've only worked for large, established businesses where less versatility and flexibility are required," said Kara Bradford, CEO of Viridian Staffing, which specializes in recruiting for the cannabis industry. 

Finance and marketing professionals also confront special challenges in transferring their skills. "Finance professionals coming from noncannabis industries may struggle with navigating the banking and financial limitations faced by the cannabis industry, while marketers may need to adjust to the industry's restrictive advertising regulations," Furiani said. 

A third challenge to transferring one's skills to the cannabis industry involves "acquiring knowledge about the plant itself and its effects [on people]," said Kelsea Appelbaum, vice president of partnerships at cannabis industry recruiting firm Vangst. She noted, "The cannabis industry is so young that everybody is learning together." 

Cannabis Recruiting Gets Creative

Cannabis companies are exploring new and innovative ways to hire talent from other industries. "Some companies are partnering with staffing agencies and headhunters to identify and recruit candidates with specific skill sets. Others are offering competitive salaries and generous benefit packages to lure professionals away from more traditional industries," Furiani said. "Some are even implementing creative strategies such as 'budtender competitions' or 'cannabis cook-offs' to recruit talent."  

In the end, "the cannabis industry isn't all that different from other agricultural and CPG industries," Applebaum said. "It just has an added level of regulation and laws."

As the cannabis industry continues to mature and as more professionals start their careers in it, skills transfer will likely become smoother.

Joseph Romsey is a freelance writer based in Boston.


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