7 Tips for Hiring and Retaining Staff

Features - Staffing

How to gauge labor needs, hire, onboard and retain workers as you scale up your hemp operation.

May 5, 2020

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Staffing a business may seem like a straightforward endeavor, but with an often complex regulatory landscape and labor needs that fluctuate seasonally, hemp business owners have much to consider when hiring and training employees.

Hemp Temps launched in 2013 as one of the first staffing agencies to serve the cannabis and hemp industries. The Denver-based company specializes in helping Colorado and Oklahoma dispensaries, cultivation/farming operations, extraction facilities and kitchens find temporary and temporary-to-permanent employees. CEO John Paul Dreibelbis spoke with Hemp Grower to share his tips for hiring, from helping you determine the size and scope of your workforce needs to finding the right candidates to onboarding and training new employees.

Note: This article originally ran in the November/December 2019 issue of Hemp Grower.

1. Consider how labor needs fit into your overall business plan

Long before a business starts production and harvest, it should consider how many full-time, part-time and temporary workers are needed to achieve the business’s goals, Dreibelbis says.

Businesses should ensure standard operating procedures (SOPs) are in place for cultivation, drying, curing and processing with a clear end product and go-to-market strategy in mind. They should also maintain a calendar of harvest and testing dates. These objectives will help business owners understand the operation’s workflow and how much labor is needed to keep things running smoothly throughout the season, Dreibelbis says.

“Whether you’re using machines or doing hand-trimming or defoliation, have an understanding of what it’s really going to take to get the job done,” he says.

2. Define desired qualifications (and how you might teach them)

It is important to define the basic skill sets and qualifications needed when searching for candidates. In this nascent and rapidly growing field, Dreibelbis says to focus on attitude over experience.

“As long as they’re willing to do the job, learn and work hard, that’s really what we look for,” he says.

Some employers may take this a step further and require a certification or compliance training program as a prerequisite for certain positions, he adds. To meet those industry needs, Hemp Temps started Hemp Temps University, which offers free in-person and virtual training programs where employees undergo compliance and technical training to learn the job fundamentals.

Dreibelbis says all employees attend orientation, complete trimming and harvesting training and learn about the Environmental Protection Agency's Agriculture Worker Protection Standards (WPS).

For farmers who don’t have access to these training materials or prefer to self-train, it’s important to consider how you will vet qualified applicants and how you will train those new to the industry.

3. Implement a training program that thoroughly covers safety protocols

Newly hired staff will not only need to be trained in the day-to-day operations and job duties, but also on safety, Dreibelbis says.

“[Make] sure that people are wearing hairnets, beard nets, [and] changing out of their [street] clothes [while working in the processing and packaging areas]. Those are things to keep an eye out for.”

Federal and state agencies also have their own required safety training that employers must adhere to, such as the WPS. “Worker safety is a huge deal,” Dreibelbis says. “You can’t be exposing employees to pesticides, so understanding what those protocols are is … huge because [employers] can get fines from the Department of Agriculture and get potentially shut down.”

4. Set realistic expectations

Another part of the onboarding process is ensuring that new hires understand what is expected of them—and that these expectations can actually be achieved, Dreibelbis says.

“For us, [it’s] making sure they understand what they’re getting into because I think a lot of times, people just hire people, [and new hires] might read the title, but not really understand what it entails,” he says.

If job titles and descriptions are not clearly defined, a facility can quickly become unorganized, Dreibelbis adds.

“People show up, and then next thing you know, everybody’s kind of doing their own thing,” he says. “And then, when they’re not happy with the results, they start pointing fingers. [Be] proactive, [have] a clear picture of what’s going to be done, and maybe [set] some rewards for overproduction … to really keep everybody on the same page and happy.”

Businesses might consider having images and visual aids on the wall that offer examples of what is expected of employees as well as clearly documented processes and goals for each workday, Dreibelbis adds.

“[Take] 10 minutes before the day starts to give everyone a pep talk on what to expect, how the day’s going to go, what time breaks are going to be taken, … who’s in charge of what,” he says. "And [have] clear go-to SOPs where, if someone forgets, they can go look at pictures and diagrams.”

Beyond imagery, designate people who employees can seek out, both on the jobsite and at headquarters, with any questions or report any problems.

5. Consider the market when setting wages

Pay is often a touchy subject with potential hires and employees, but Dreibelbis says wages should be based on tenure, experience, reliability and the market forces at play.

“The price per pound really dictates the value of what the going rate for the position is,” he says. “Unemployment is super low right now, so we’re seeing wages rise. And if you look at [the overall] unemployment [rate] of 2.8% in Colorado, … less and less people [are] available to work. With that, wages are rising, and it’s just like anything else [with] supply and demand.”

While there are, of course, average going rates for each position, wages are ultimately decided based on what the employer and employee agree upon, Dreibelbis adds, but employers should keep in mind that employees are most willing to work for what they believe they are worth. Employers should also consider establishing clear avenues for raises and career advancements, which can help prevent or reduce turnover.

6. Keep your books in order

As a team grows, so do employers’ back-of-house duties, such as maintaining proper insurance coverage and payroll.

For example, companies might try to classify workers as independent contractors (1099) rather than full-time employees (W-2) because the companies don’t have to provide medical insurance or workers’ compensation to 1099s. In addition, wages are non-taxed for 1099s.

“It’s unfortunate, but we see a lot of companies that just try to pay everybody as a contractor, and the states are cracking down on that,” Dreibelbis says.

He points to Colorado as an example. The state conducted an audit of all employees who were classified as 1099 and found those people were not paid through a Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN). A deeper dive revealed that there was misclassification of employees.

7. Value your employees (equally)

Above all, businesses should treat their employees with respect and make them feel welcome regardless of their status as a full-time, part-time or seasonal worker, Dreibelbis says.

“[Make] them feel welcome and [make] them feel like they’re an equal with the rest of the staff,” he says. “A lot of times, there’s this culture where the existing staff don’t necessarily treat the temporary staff with the respect that they deserve. And inadvertently what happens is those people move on.”

Both temporary and permanent employees should be given the tools necessary for them to do their jobs, Dreibelbis adds. “[Have] the tools for them to be successful and [have] a really clear plan on how to explain that. Don’t just assume that employees know what you want. You have to explain to them what the process is going to be, and sometimes you have to explain it more than once.”

Businesses can implement incentive programs, he says, such as offering rewards when production goals are completed, to keep employees motivated and engaged.

In addition, “[Have] a location that’s easy to get to, the right facilities, bathrooms for people to use, the break area [and give] employees the breaks that are state and federally mandated. [Understand] those rules,” Dreibelbis says, and treat employees like you value their contributions to your business.

The need for and shortage of qualified staff will continue to grow as companies ramp up production and as the hemp industry standardizes and matures. Farmers can’t do it all themselves, and they can’t get by on family and friends anymore, either. It’s important to take the time now to focus on staffing and formalize procedures to help make the hiring process less burdensome and set standards that make it easier to find and train future applicants, as well as retain talented employees.

Melissa Schiller is assistant digital editor of sister magazines Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.