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As the marijuana industry looks to the Legislature, job prospects continue to expand

It’s not an easy number to find.

How many people are employed in the cannabis industry in Washington?

The State Department of Labor and Industries reliably reports that 370 full-time equivalent jobs are held by builders of logging roads; that there are 57 blacksmiths, 1,384 florists and 54 underground miners, among others.

But budtenders? Cannabis stem trimmers? Pipemakers? Retail marijuana sales managers?

Nope.

Security guards, CFOs, agronomists, chemists in the industry?

No substantive employment numbers are available specifically drawn from the cannabis sector — whether for industrial, recreational or medicinal use.

And just as the dynamics of supply and demand have recently forced the retail price of recreational marijuana down, so have those same economics marked employment.

One cannabis-focused staffing agency in Seattle does offer a number.

For every job on file at the agency, 200 people have applied.

‘IT’S JUST LIKE APPLES’

Angel Swanson, who has been in the cannabis business since 2011, is familiar with the glut of applicants.

She and her husband operate medicinal marijuana shops in Pierce County and are appealing a Liquor Control Board decision denying their application for a retail recreational license.

The Swansons employ 10 workers, and this year Angel Swanson opened, then later, left a cannabis-focused employment agency in King County.

“I was spread too thin,” she said recently at her shop on Canyon Road.

At the employment agency, she said, “I learned a there are a lot of people with no skill sets who want jobs in the marijuana industry. We were so inundated (with applications), it crashed our website twice.”

She recently advertised openings for two part-time staff positions — and received 170 applications.

“People want to work so they can break out in the industry,” she said.

The typical applicants are not what she expected.

“I don’t see a lot of what I consider stoners,” she said. The majority of applicants — she estimates 85 percent — don’t smoke pot.

“This is just the beginning,” she said. “I think cannabis is going to be a huge employer in the state.”

Huge in more ways than simply growing, processing and selling marijuana.

In designing a retail store in Lewis County, Swanson said she hired construction workers to remodel an existing building.

She also employed a lighting contractor, she said, plus professionals to control mold and pests and to install a security system. Add experts in HVAC, and electricians, and a consultant knowledgeable concerning requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Add attorneys, CPAs and software developers.

“It’s so far reaching, you have no idea,” she said.

Don Muridan, owner of two Tacoma retail recreational marijuana shops, agrees.

“People are excited about the industry,” he said. “They want to get their foot in the door.”

Muridan characterizes the potential of the marijuana business as something akin to the dot-com boom of a decade past.

“This is going to be a multibillion dollar industry,” he said, noting the recent legalization of marijuana by voters in Alaska and Oregon, and looking ahead to legalization in California in 2016.

“I easily see this as being one of the biggest industries in Washington state,” he said.

He expects that markets will expand as laws grow more accepting, thus allowing growers in Washington to export their product.

“It’s just like apples,” he said.

DOT-COM AGAIN

Doug Neng, 24, has worked at Muridan’s operation since its opening as an Initiative-502-compliant retail outlet last summer.

A third-year University of Washington Tacoma business student aiming at a degree in marketing, Neng said he had previously worked selling sports apparel, then sunglasses, then hardware. Now he’s a budtender three days a week.

“I never really saw myself getting into the marijuana industry,” he said recently.

He echoes Muridan’s boast.

“This is the dot-com boom of our generation,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity.”

Just as he didn’t expect to work selling marijuana, he didn’t foresee the variety of clientele he serves.

“A lot of people from Montana, Alaska, California,” he said. “And France, from all over the world.” Local customers tend to be older, in their 60s and 70s, the aging baby boomers “who smoked in high school.”

He likes the job.

“I get to come to work and sell pot,” he said. “I see the growth in the industry. If I can get in early, the sky’s the limit. I want to do it the right way.”

He has begun to apply his business training at the workplace.

“How can we entice people to see the value? You want to create an experience for the consumer,” he said. “I’m more of a go-getter. I want to make myself an asset to an employer.”

And one day, he said, “I definitely want to be an owner. I can see this as a career.”

HANGING ON, HANGING IN

When they convene in January, state legislators will confront three distinct markets as they seek to refine marijuana laws and tweak the rules in Initiative 502.

Recreational marijuana, heavily regulated and taxed, comes at the highest price with “flower” selling today for more than $10 per gram. Medicinal and “street” pot typically sell for $10 or less.

David Easley, an employee at Tacoma’s Torch NorthWest, said the laws must change if the state’s experiment in legalization is going to succeed.

“I started preplanning two-and-a-half years ago for (Initiative) 502,” he said.

Torch NorthWest has a combined license to both grow and process cannabis for sale to retailers.

Where July and August saw a severe shortage of marijuana available from growers, there is currently a glut, Easley said.

“It is really bad,” he said. “There’s too much supply. There have been more producers and processors approved, over retailers, and that creates a supply imbalance.”

Where a gram of flower sold at the wholesale level for $9 to $12 a gram last summer, “a gram today, because of the overabundance, is selling for anything from $3 to $4.50, and that includes taxes,” he said.

“Legislation has to be changed. We don’t believe that medical needs to be eliminated, it needs to be integrated. It is scary to put money into this business,” he said.

For state-sanctioned growers, processors and retailers, he said, “survival is who can hang onto the cliff the longest. I don’t see this business really showing what the true value is for at least 12 months, and more like 18. If the price stays at $4.50, nobody’s going to make money. Retailers, producers and processors all need to get on the same page. We’re optimistic but we’re also realistic.”

Pamela Paul, 59, worked as an executive assistant at the city of Tacoma before leaving in 1997. She’s been production manager at Torch NorthWest since July.

“I don’t use the stuff,” she said, of the product grown and processed at the South Tacoma business.

But of the job, she said, “it’s a hoot. I love it. This is an industry that’s going to mushroom.”

The future of that industry concerns more than smokable marijuana, and the ramifications extend beyond Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska.

AN INDUSTRIAL FUTURE

In business for a year, Viridian Staffing of Seattle, another cannabis industry employment agency, represents employers and job seekers in all sectors.

“You have security firms, you have extraction technologies, software companies, mobile apps. It’s a pretty big space,” partner David Muret said. “We represent I-502 and the medicinal side, as well as the ancillary companies.”

He foresees that the overall market “will easily be a multibillion-dollar industry once you have it coast-to-coast.”

He came to cannabis from finance, the law and high-tech business development, he said, while partner Kara Bradford has spent her career in recruitment.

“Neither of us had experience with the cannabis industry prior to starting the company,” Muret said.

When the company began, he said, “we saw many companies just hiring friends and family members. Now we’re seeing the need for a higher level of expertise. People are starting to realize they can’t just phone it in.”

“All of our clients are projecting growth,” Bradford said, “but they want to scale in a way that’s meaningful. They don’t want to hire people and then lay them off. They’re actually looking at doing some workforce planning.

“Things are slower and more arduous and time-consuming than most of our clients were expecting,” she said.

The most popular job currently on her books comes under the title “master grower.” “(Clients) are really looking for people who are experts in horticulture and agronomy, who can bring their techniques over into the cannabis industry,” she said.

It was at Viridian that 200 applicants were in the hat for a job.

For Muret, the future of the industry is not limited to retail and medicinal sales.

“We are also interested in the industrial hemp space, which by some projections will dwarf that,” he said.

He foresees hemp fiber as a competitor to cotton, and lumber, and other established industries.

And that will lead to jobs in production, warehousing and distribution as well as sales and administration, Bradford said.

Muret also foresees a social benefit.

“Washington has plenty or former thriving mill towns,” he said. “Our hope and belief with the release of industrial hemp is that those mills can be refitted, and bring back some of those towns.”

Tacoma, a former mill town, might be a good place to start, or maybe down in Pacific County, in the village of Tokeland.

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