Published in Food/Agribusiness
Cresco Labs LLC’s commercial growing facility in Marshall. Cresco Labs LLC’s commercial growing facility in Marshall. COURTESY PHOTO

8-week KVCC program prepares workers for thriving cannabis industry

BY Monday, January 31, 2022 10:43am

Michigan’s rapidly growing cannabis industry spurred Kalamazoo Valley Community College to unveil a series of certificate programs designed to prepare a new workforce for the sector.

With enrollment scheduled to open on Feb. 15, the school will partner with Ventura, Calif.-based Green Flower Media to provide training for people looking to get involved in the industry, including through a grow operation, retail or manufacturing.

“We were approached by several different companies in the area,” said Craig Jbara, KVCC’s vice president of strategic business and community development. “They expressed an interest in the fact that the people they are currently getting are trained internally and it would be helpful if we had some sort of a baseline program for it.”

“That starts everything,” he added. “The need from the customer puts us down the path of doing the diligence and the research to make sure that what we propose as a training option will meet their needs.”

Workforce needs

The program is the first of its kind in West Michigan tying the cannabis industry with higher education. However, Northern Michigan University was a true pioneer in bringing cannabis into higher education, when in 2017 it launched its four-year medicinal plant chemistry degree program. Northern Michigan’s program was the first of its kind in the country, and also leveraged Green Flower as a partner.

Knowing that an intensive, four-year program that involved chemistry wouldn’t be accessible to everyone, Green Flower developed scaled down, eight-week programs that are now available at KVCC.

The school is offering training for upcoming cultivation technicians, provisioning center associates and manufacturing agents. The courses are 100-percent virtual and self-paced, making it accessible to a wide net of prospective students. Each program costs $900.

The school has proven to be effective in responding to the workforce needs of fast-growing industries. In 2015, KVCC launched a sustainable brewing program to feed the hot craft beer industry.

“What we’re trying to do is educate people and provide them the training to be sustainable in life,” Jbara said. “Whether it’s our credit programs or our non-credit programs, it’s all meant for the same thing: To provide relevant education for students so they can achieve their objectives. So they can get a job.”

If early inquiries are any indication, Jbara said he is optimistic about the success of the upcoming cannabis workforce programs.

“If we’ve done our homework, these are things that are in demand and relevant,” he said. “So far, the inquiries have been significant. We are optimistic that it will be successful for the people that participate as well as the employers that will hopefully be able to fuel some of their needs.”

New crop of talent

Green Flower, a training platform for the cannabis industry, leans on its partners in the private sector to design its training programs. In fact, the organization has developed a pool of more than 600 industry experts to contribute to developing their programs.

The organization currently offers programs for higher education and directly for employers. Green Flower also offers its Ganjier program, which trains participants to become the equivalent of a sommelier of the cannabis industry.

Daniel Kalef, vice president of higher education for Green Flower, acknowledged how quickly the industry is growing in Michigan and that Green Flower was looking for a partner that was in tune and focused on local workforce development to provide these eight-month certificate programs.

“We developed the programs we’re offering with KVCC in response to employers telling us that the more entry level workers in the dispensaries, grow operations and manufacturing labs were harder to find,” Kalef said. “They were struggling to find people that knew what they were doing and keep people.”

While the programs are designed to provide an entry level knowledge in these different disciplines of cannabis, they’re meant to get a person’s foot in a door where opportunity appears to be plentiful.

“A great thing about cannabis, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, is that the upward mobility in the industry is crazy,” Kalef said. “People are starting out behind the counter at a dispensary and they’re in management roles in six months.”

Kalef also pointed to the industry’s heavy turnover. Much of that stems from inexperienced employees who become either frustrated or ineffective when on the job.

“We’re hearing across the country, at the entry level and even a little above, that there is around 40-percent turnover,” Kalef said. “What is happening is that someone works at (clothing retailer) the Gap and smokes pot and thinks, ‘I’ll have no problem at a dispensary,’ and it’s just not true.”

Inexperience in dispensaries or within the grow operation is also a major liability for the employer.

“Half of the people that go to a dispensary are over the age of 60 and they’re looking to solve a problem,” Kalef said. “They’re not looking to get high. They can’t sleep or they have chronic pain. And that’s one of the reasons we’re not fans of the word ‘bud-tender.’ This is not a bar. Even in a recreational dispensary, it’s run like a pharmacy.” 

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