Even as millions of Americans struggle with unemployment amid the coronavirus-related recession, the cannabis industry is growing. In fact, 2021 could be the industry's biggest year yet for job generation, according to Karson Humiston, founder and CEO of cannabis recruiting firm Vangst.
"This is going to be the blockbuster year for cannabis hiring," Humiston told Cheddar. "2021 is where we're going to see tremendous job growth, and we think it's going to be the biggest job creation year the cannabis industry has ever seen."
Despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, global sales of cannabis surged 48 percent to nearly $21.3 billion in 2020, according to cannabis data analytics firm BDSA. In the U.S., the legal market surpassed $17.5 billion in sales in 2020, a 46 percent jump year-over-year. With that growth came jobs. The U.S. cannabis industry added an estimated 77,300 jobs in 2020 — more than twice the number it added throughout 2019, according to Leafly's 2021 jobs report.
"At a time when 10 million Americans saw their jobs disappear overnight in this pandemic, we saw the cannabis industry grow," Humiston said.
The year wasn't all smooth sailing, though. According to Vangst's 2020 Cannabis Salary Guide, 43 percent of plant-touching companies surveyed and 56 percent of vertically integrated cannabis companies surveyed reduced their headcount in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, despite the overwhelming majority starting the year with plans to hire. Ancillary companies surveyed were better insulated from staffing reductions. Only 11 percent reported staff cutbacks and 78 percent maintained their previous staffing level, but a full 70 percent had originally intended to hire, according to the report. Vangst surveyed 39 U.S. cannabis companies to compile the data.
The pandemic hit at a particularly inconvenient time for the cannabis industry, which had already suffered a very difficult 2019. The layoffs and furloughs of the early days of the pandemic also reflected uncertainty about how the market might respond to a disruption as substantial as COVID-19. The cannabis industry's youth — the oldest adult-use cannabis markets in the U.S. kicked off sales in 2014 — means that it had never weathered a serious economic downturn. By the second half of the year, although buying habits changed, it became clear that neither a pandemic nor a recession would prevent consumers from purchasing cannabis.
"The uncertainty this time around is why there was layoffs," Humiston said. "Next time around, I definitely think that investors will be more confident putting money into cannabis businesses if there's an economic pullback."
Cannabis is a rapidly growing industry that has posted remarkable job growth each year since 2017, according to Leafly. But on the back of tremendous political strides the cannabis industry made in 2020 and growth in the market, Humiston said 2021 could be an exceptional year for cannabis jobs.
Pandemic-related accommodations created completely new types of jobs in cannabis. Many dispensaries and retail shops began offering online shopping, curbside pickup, and delivery to cut down on contact with customers. These services required additional staff, making roles like software engineers and delivery drivers especially in demand, according to Humiston. Companies like online cannabis marketplace Dutchie and digital payments provider Hypur saw major growth. And experts say these types of services — and the people that support them — won't fall by the wayside once the pandemic ends. Dutchie co-founder and CEO Ross Lipson said the pandemic only accelerated a trend that was already coming for cannabis.
"E-commerce has always been a proven model or opportunity in all industries. And I think with the coronavirus pandemic, it has really shifted the consumer behavior to e-commerce, to ordering online," Lipson said.
Plus, the 2020 election saw voters in five states pass six cannabis-related legalization initiatives, representing major opportunities for job growth as new markets come online. New markets take time to roll out, but Oklahoma's 3-year-old medical market already supports almost 16,800 jobs, according to Leafly. And there are growth opportunities in more mature markets, too. California added about 23,700 new jobs in 2020, and Colorado added roughly 4,300, bringing the total number of cannabis jobs supported in those markets to 58,000 and 35,500, respectively.
"As the states continue to open up and roll out and grow, there'll be more and more jobs created. We estimate that there could be one million brand new jobs created over the next decade, pending states continue to legalize at the pace that they're legalizing now," Humiston said.
As momentum builds around legalization, all sorts of jobs will be in demand in cannabis — and many skills are transferable from other industries. Just like companies in any other industry, cannabis companies need their share of professionals with skills in human resources, marketing, accounting, and more, Humiston said. Plus, various ancillary companies support the industry without ever touching a cannabis plant. Companies with specialties in hydroponics, grow lighting, extraction, technology, and specialty logistics, for example, tend to pop up alongside traditional cannabis producers in states that legalize.
There will also be hiring in more conventional cannabis verticals, too, like cultivation, extraction, and retail. Higher-level jobs in those verticals can pay upwards of $150,000 per year, depending on the market. Vice president of retail operations at a cannabis company, for example, can earn as much as $180,000 per year, according to Vangst's salary guide. Lower-level jobs, like budtenders at cannabis dispensaries and trimmers in a cannabis grow, earn hourly wages that range on average between $12 and $17 per hour, depending on the state.
Whatever the job, Humiston's advice for cannabis job seekers is to join the industry while it is still in its early days.
"How many industries can you join, where in a couple of years, you can be an expert in the industry," she asked. "Now's the moment for people to get jobs in cannabis. And 10 years from now, you were part of building this industry from the ground up."