Cannabis industry facing shortage of staff, competition for talent
By Brian Wagner, CEO and Founder of Cannabis Compliance Inc.
Cannabis has gained significant attention in the media since Trudeau announced a path to legalization. Neighbours trade stock tips. Businesses are being bought and sold. And it seems every month, a new country announces plans for legalizing cannabis. But there’s a serious challenge emerging in the industry that isn’t being talked about.
The cannabis challenge is about supply and demand, but not about the actual product. It’s about people – the talented and trained individuals who are in short supply, but who are desperately needed by emerging cannabis companies.
It’s a challenge with parallels in many booming sectors; for example, the artificial intelligence industry, which, similar to cannabis, is growing extremely fast. The challenge for startup AI businesses isn’t about sourcing office space or hardware – it’s about people. How many people have experience in AI? Naturally, new hires can be trained if they have a foundation of relevant skills, but the staffing pressure is very real.
Imagine an AI tech company that suddenly wins a large contract and needs to hire an additional 50 technical staff – and imagine they need to fill these roles quickly (say, within 60 days). Also imagine there are a thousand other AI firms experiencing the same problem. There is a very finite number of qualified people to choose from. This what is happening in the cannabis industry right now.
The cannabis challenge is a “competition for talent” that is silently paralyzing the emerging industry. Our company is focused on compliance, education and recruitment, and we’ve seen it all. A cannabis company’s success hinges on the people it can attract. We have audited many licensed producers and seen long lists of production issues. In our experience, it ultimately comes down to the training and qualifications of staff.
Right now, there are some 115 authorized licensed producers in Canada, with another 400+ awaiting approval from Health Canada. But if we extrapolate the number of producers in established markets like Colorado and Washington, Canada could have as many as 7,000 licensed producers within five to 10 years. If this happens over 10 years, this is an average of two producers getting licensed every day of the year. There is nowhere near a supply of talent to meet this demand. Add to that new opportunities in edibles and also international export potential – and 7,000 might be a conservative number.
I often hear the sentiment, “How hard can it be to grow weed?” In a way, it isn’t hard at all. But to cultivate high-quality cannabis, on a commercial scale, with minimal pesticide use, in the wonderful country of Canada – that is very hard indeed. Growers with a commercial horticulture background are certainly well prepared to transition into the cannabis industry, but there is still a strong learning curve specific to cannabis. And when every licensed producer is in a race to the finish line, every top grower has already been spoken for. It is virtually impossible now to find a talented head grower with licensed producer experience.
The cannabis challenge will not be resolved in the short term. A Canadian cannabis industry with mistakes and high staff turnover seems likely. The best talent will be poached (and poached again). Education and training programs are also slow to arrive, and most are very theoretical rather than practical. At Cannabis Compliance Inc. (CCI), we offer courses that are virtual and competency-based, but we can only train so many students at a time. With traditional academic institutions being slow to build capacity, the industry will have few options to choose from.
From a recruitment standpoint, this poses a serious challenge for new cannabis companies. Even if they are well funded, many new producers are geographically remote and have a limited local talent to choose from. The land may be cheaper, but the labour pool simply isn’t there. If a labour pool is filtered by qualifications, availability, personality and a criminal record, the list is even smaller. For our own recruiting services, we now have to search for international candidates for Canadian producers.
In a way, this challenge is a good one to have, because it can mean jobs and economic stimulation. But it’s still a challenge, and a serious one with indications that it will get worse in the years ahead. Canada is charged with narrowing the gap so that cannabis companies don’t sit in empty facilities with no one to run them.