13 Tips for Competing in a Tight Cannabis Labor Market

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Experts share winning strategies for attracting and retaining talent in the competitive cannabis industry.

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January 5, 2022

Illustrations by Nadzeya_Dzivakova | iStockPhoto
Headshots courtesy of respective subjects

Much like in the overall U.S. job market, growers, dispensaries, and other businesses that serve the cannabis industry face fierce competition for employees, especially for certain roles, such as sales and cultivation jobs. Finding qualified people is much harder, according to James Yagielo, CEO of HempStaff. “We used to find dozens of candidates in a day for certain jobs,” Yagielo says. “Now, we’re only finding a handful in a week.”

Many people working in the cannabis industry are reluctant to change jobs for modest pay increases they would have previously considered. Growth-minded cannabis businesses must have robust, cohesive business strategies for attracting and keeping people. Here, three hiring and retention experts offer insights on how to best hone your company’s approach to recruitment and retention.

1. Allow people to work remotely, whenever the job permits it.

Many employees got a taste of working remotely during the pandemic and loved it. According to a Gallup poll, nearly two-thirds of U.S workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue to do so. “If it’s not a hands-on job like a grower, extractor, or dispensary manager, employers are letting people work remotely,” Yagielo says. “It’s a huge advantage [in retaining talent].”

2. Don’t let your best talent slip away.

Filling open positions can be costly, so some employers save on recruiting costs by matching the salary offers employees receive from competitors. “Counteroffers have always been common in some industries,” Yagielo says. “Sometimes an employee will say, ‘I know this place. I’ll accept a counteroffer and stay where I am.’”

3. Focus on work culture.

Some employers reward attendance and work anniversaries with prizes or boosted pay, but money isn’t everything. Many employees come to work because their friends are there. Entry level employees are especially interested in an enjoyable work environment. Successful cannabis organizations create camaraderie with their patients and their employees.

“Employees want more than a workplace. They want a social environment,” Yagielo says. “The best [employers] tend to showcase that by posting photos of their employees hanging out at the bowling alley, or goofing off together.” The happiest employees, he says, are those who work with their friends or make friends with co-workers. Group events that bring people together socially can help retention. “Who wants to leave all their friends to go work somewhere else where they don’t know anyone?”

Melita Balestieri, SVP of Marketing and Business Operations with Higher Growth Search, says many cultivators are squeezed by lower prices on their crops, and those market conditions limit an employers’ ability to combat the labor shortage with higher wages. Therefore, establishing a work culture that allows people to have the lifestyle they want can be a differentiator. “We have one client that people love working for,” she says. “They’re on for a week, and off for two. People love the time off, and they always come back because they love to go to work in this space.”

4. Boost company benefits.

Stock options after a designated period of employment can be an effective incentive for employee retention, and the same can be said for extra paid time off. People who work in the cannabis industry are often there because they are cannabis enthusiasts, so for cultivation businesses that are vertically integrated, employee discounts can be an attractive perk in states that allow discounts.

5. Emphasize growth opportunities.

Cannabis organizations have a distinct hiring advantage over employers in stagnant industries: They can promise quick promotions and pay increases because the industry is growing. While it might not be feasible in every case, Yagielo says, “We‘ve seen people go from making $12 an hour to $50,000 a year, and that can turn into $80,000 over a couple of years. Employers can use that as a selling point to draw people from the larger market.”

6. Tell your story.

Today’s job candidates have choices. Karson Humiston, founder and CEO of Vangst, says there must be a compelling reason for them to choose your company, and good storytelling can set you apart from other employers. She advises employers to share videos of employees, explain what the company believes in, and showcase your company’s values.

“The next generation of employees doesn’t care about getting a dollar more per hour,” Humiston says. “They want to know what you’re doing to give back to the world, what your founder stands for. They want to know that they are part of something that matters.”

Figuring out what you stand for and sharing that story in technicolor on your website and on social media may be the most important thing you do to attract and retain good employees.

7. See the reorganized labor market as an opportunity.

Cannabis businesses have extraordinary cachet in the job market. Widespread passion for making cannabis legal and available to the masses can attract candidates from other industries, according to Humiston. “[During] the pandemic, a lot of people came to us and said, ‘You know what? I had a lot of time for self- reflection, and I realized that [the cannabis industry] is something I am passionate about.’” Employers can leverage the medicinal and social justice benefits of cannabis legalization as drawing cards.

8. Help employees reach their goals.

A company that demonstrates interest in career growth and development has strong appeal for many employees. If you want to create a desirable workplace, ask employees about personal and professional goals. Work together to chart a path toward helping people achieve their goals over time so they don’t feel pigeonholed in a position. “It’s much harder to leave an employer that is actively investing in your individual goals,” Humiston says.

9. Build a strong employee feedback loop.

Employees succeed when they are aligned with employer expectations and receive regular feedback to gauge their performance. “This is where a lot of companies go wrong,” Humiston says. “The candidate gets there, there’s not a lot of communication, and suddenly everyone is unhappy. The candidate feels like they aren’t getting good direction. The company feels like the employee is doing a poor job.”

It benefits everyone to set clear expectations up front and be transparent about progress, according to Humiston. “Before a candidate signs on the dotted line, employers should make it very clear what success looks like for each position,” she says.

10. Treat employees as insiders.

Make sure employees know what’s going on with the business. “This kind of communication is so key, especially in today’s environment with some employees working remotely,” Humiston says. Sharing business progress on a frequent basis can keep people excited about their work and how it contributes to the larger picture.

11. Reduce COVID anxiety.

Some surveys suggest that nearly 50 percent of employees are reluctant to return to work due to COVID-19 related concerns, so alleviating those concerns can help you retain those employees and widen your pool of potential candidates for open positions. Humiston says many of her clients offer rapid COVID testing on-site to allay such concerns. Investing in air filtration and sanitation systems may further reduce concerns about the risk of infection.

The COVID protocols you choose signal your company’s attitude toward health and safety. A cavalier approach can sabotage even the best recruiting efforts, according to Yagielo. “We had one candidate who was offered a job and turned it down because they didn’t like the fact that the interviewer didn’t wear a mask,” he says.

12. Make sure you have the right leaders for your work culture.

Unreasonable managers always have a negative effect on employee retention: They repel your best workers. Few employers can afford to ignore poor management in this labor market.

While some management skills can be learned, personality is a crucial part of leadership. For that reason, many employers use standardized personality tests to evaluate prospective managers. “Personality tests can help you accurately predict whether an individual will be successful in a certain role,” Balestieri says.

In addition to employment references, employers can ask management candidates for references from people they’ve managed, according to Humiston. “We like to ask how this person was as a boss, how he/she handled giving and receiving feedback, what the hardest conversations they had were like, and how that person fostered career growth,” she says.

13. Build a lasting business foundation.

As bigger companies join the cannabis industry, Balestieri says small- and medium-sized businesses must build sustainable business structures that can withstand the industry’s next evolution: federal legalization.

“If I’m a smaller organization, maybe I really want to keep it that way, but now there are all of these bigger players that actually have lots of perks and benefits they can offer employees because they’re big,” she says.

Successful businesses are girded by well-crafted infrastructures that support growth and attract good people. Find what makes your business different for employees (such as a values-driven approach, a friendly culture, and a dedication to serving medical patients) and leverage those assets and skills to retain top talent.

Crystal Hammon manages Leading Reads, an Indianapolis company that helps create original online content.