Illinois’ Community College Cannabis Vocational Pilot Program Sets Stage for Students Eager to Enter Industry

The pilot program is seen as a component of broader workplace training platforms for the cannabis industry—as well as a piece of the Illinois social equity vision.

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The Community College Cannabis Vocational Pilot Program managed by the Illinois Department of Agriculture was created as a solution to prepare students for a career growing, studying or working in the cannabis industry. When Project Evolve students were accepted into the Cannabis Dispensary Operations program at Olive-Harvey, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, hopes were high.

The Project Evolve program provides qualifying students with full scholarships and resources that lead them to high-wage and in-demand occupations, with Cannabis Dispensary Operations being one of nine areas of study to choose from. Olive-Harvey’s certificate is one of two City Colleges of Chicago cannabis certificates under the Community College Cannabis Vocational Pilot Program. Wilbur Wright Community College offers a Cannabis Technician Program with a focus on processing, infusing and testing.

The pilot program is seen as a component of broader workplace training platforms for the cannabis industry—as well as a piece of the Illinois social equity vision.  

According to the Economic Policy Institute, Black Americans had the highest rates of unemployment in the nation at 6.3% in the first quarter. Black Illinois residents, in particular, saw an increase in unemployment rates from 6.7% in Q1 to 20.7% in Q2. These statistics are significant because workforce development programs are charged with providing skills training to address the low-wage worker paradigm and unemployment/underemployment cycles in which Black workers seem to be stuck. Many students were expecting the growth of the adult-use cannabis industry to create a pathway to entry-level positions, and certificate completion was the first step in that direction.

As of May 2020, Illinois ranked 10th in the nation for legal marijuana jobs, according to a Leafly report. Illinois has 9,176 legal marijuana jobs and is estimated to grow that number to 63,000 by 2025, according to New Frontier Data, with an expectation of two non-technical jobs to every one technical job (not including ancillary businesses). Illinois’ industry and job opportunities were expected to grow in 2020 with the state adding up to 75 new adult-use dispensaries by May 1. As the state postponed the distribution of licenses due to the coronavirus pandemic and legal challenges to the state’s retail licensing regime, prospective early-career cannabis professionals again found themselves wading in uncertainty.

Students attending classes were abruptly transitioned to emergency remote education. Online classes while accessible, unearthed other areas of need to keep students engaged. Laptops, hot-spots and software support became an integral part of the program. Yet even with the support in place for students to complete the certificate, a question remains: Will students be able to find full-time employment?

There are many concerns emerging about access to opportunities and removing barriers to make them more attainable. While the cannabis market is stalled in Illinois due to a myriad of reasons, hemp on the other hand shows promise. New Frontier reported “U.S. hemp saw a 459% increase in cultivation acreage from 2018 to 2019.” The passing of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill allowed for growers to take full advantage of the legalization of this agricultural commodity and inspired City Colleges of Chicago programs to address cannabis holistically.

Both Olive-Harvey and Wilbur Wright are planning to incorporate hemp into their certificate programs with full awareness of the benefits and opportunities of the hemp side of the industry. While both marijuana and hemp clearly have environmental aspects to their industry, hemp, as a commodity crop, provides growers with multiple end uses as a renewable resource and in commercial product innovation.

The intersection of sustainable practices, energy efficiency, water conservation, environmental justice and climate change presents a unique opportunity to educate prospective cannabis industry employees. For communities of color, these environmental and sustainability-related lessons are invaluable and could have broader impacts for a number of industries and products that have been identified as causing harm to humans and nature.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, community colleges and workforce development programs will have to be prepared to adjust due to the current employment landscape. Industry leaders and experts must be willing to explore creative employment models and early-career cannabis professionals must be equally willing to use this time to network, learn and allow their curiosity and their passions to seed their success.

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