Oklahoma’s new cannabis industry welcomes a new labor force with lower wages than other states.
Fresh to the workforce, searching for a career change or simply wanting to catch a ride on the green train? Oklahoma’s medical cannabis game might be the career path for you, but the industry offers some unique barriers to entry. If you can’t lean on someone for a gig or have the resources to set up your own operation, going through a placement service might just be your ticket through the cannabis industry door.
Local cannabis specialty placement services like Colorado-based Hemp Temps or Oklahoma’s own Chronic Staffing are dedicated to helping bridge the gap between potential applicants and cannabis business owners. While job types vary, by and large, these staffing services offer two entry-level gigs, either working on a farm or grow, trimming plants for distribution, or meeting patients’ needs working as a budtender in a dispensary.
Trimming cannabis allows hands-on types to really dive into the production side of the industry. Before those beautiful nuggets fill up dispensary jars, they have to be processed by skilled trimmers whose primary job is to work closely with growers, carefully weighing and trimming flowers to release their full potential, all while carefully protecting the trichomes from damage. If the idea of working with plants all day appeals to you, this might be a great career path, but keep in mind these workers labor long hours in a full range of temperatures and require incredible focus to stay sharp at these repetitive, physically demanding tasks.
If customer service is your background and working with people is your passion, perhaps working as a budtender could be your ideal gateway gig into the cannabis industry.
“Patients can spend 90 percent or more of their time in-store, interacting with just one person: the budtender,” wrote industry veteran Trevor Smith in a piece for Leafly. “The best budtenders are passionate about cannabis, exceptionally knowledgeable about the products and thrive on providing great customer service.”
Sounds great, right? Well, these jobs typically pay around $10 an hour.
“For some reason, $10 an hour is the number in Oklahoma,” said Carri Lawrence of Chronic Staffing. “We’re not anywhere near close to the other states in pay, but we’re Oklahoma. … At $10 an hour, you’re not going to get that rock star that you need in there controlling your life savings, but we all have to do the best we can with finding someone, and at least you have another person helping you.”
Lawrence, who ran national hospital staffing agency Hive Staffing for over two decades before co-founding Chronic Staffing, cites several factors for the low pay. An inexperienced labor pool, Oklahoma labor laws that only allow workers to be paid by the hour rather than the pound and lack of education among industry professionals in this burgeoning industry all combine to create an environment that does not pay as well as more established cannabis marketplaces across the United States or even in other industries across Oklahoma.
“For Hive,” Lawrence said, “I’d charge around $16 or $17 an hour for staff. It doesn’t make sense that I’m paying less on cannabis, but that sticker shock of $15 is too high for the current market. I’m going low so they can see the value that I’m bringing to the table.”
That value includes matching staff personnel with the right client fit and handling all the nuts and bolts of employing people — from payroll through to HR — allowing the grower or dispensary to focus on their true passion.
“I tell my clients all the time, you have to treat your cannabis business like a real business; paying people in product or paying ’em as independent contractors is going to catch up to you,” Lawrence said. “You guys will lose your license — not because you weren’t following guidelines for the OMMA, but you’ll lose it on the labor board side of it.”
While the benefits of utilizing a staffing service are pretty clear-cut for business owners, low pay aside, this model also offers benefits for jobseekers. For starters, working as a W-2 employee through an agency allows potential staff to avoid the headaches and potential tax pitfalls of 1099 contract labor. Until the federal government relaxes banking regulations on the cannabis industry, the business remains cash-based. As a work-around, Chronic Staffing pays its workers with a cash card, allowing them to do business with anyone that takes Visa while not having to carry around a pile of cash. Getting legitimately paid also allows workers to avoid potential legal pitfalls or employer disputes from getting “paid” in merchandise. Yes, the pay is poor, but as the industry grows, working hard and gaining inside experience could pay off by blooming your passion into a beautiful career.
But Lawrence warns that it is hard work.
“I get applicants … that think it’s some magical job — they’re gonna be high all day, they’ll be able to smoke all day for free — and that’s illegal for one,” Lawrence said. “It’s just a misconception; they’re in love with the idea of working in the cannabis industry, but they get in and realize it’s real work and get right back out unless they have a passion for it.”
To help address the pay disparity between older, more established markets and actuate a prepared workforce, local cannabis staffing services offer various online and classroom courses geared toward bridging the knowledge and skills gap. Hemp Temps offers industry-specific weekly immersive classes covering a range of topics from onboarding patients to budtending at its Oklahoma City and Aurora, Colorado, locations.
Currently, Chronic Staffing has partnered with a Colorado company to offer online training available as a whole course or with a la carte modules for both industry professionals and the home grower. Looking toward the future, Chronic Staffing is working on rolling out a 30-day intensive boot camp later this year.
“I just really look forward to being able to roll out that boot camp. I think that the manufacturing as a skill set is a vital thing for our state; you can’t require people to have experience when you don’t have it,” Lawrence said. “We’re trying to build a solid pool of talent for the growers to tap into.”