Careers in cannabis: What’s with higher education in Illinois?

Submitted / SIU

Dr. Dale “Buck” Hales, physiology department chair at Southern Illinois University and cannabis education pioneer.

For decades Southern Illinois University physiology department chair Dr. Dale “Buck” Hales led breakthrough research demonstrating ovarian cancer reduction through long-term intake of flaxseed.

More recently, the National Institutes of Health-funded researcher turned his attention to CBD and the undiscovered therapeutic properties of hemp plants.

“There is so much interest but very little hard science,” he said. 

After getting the green light from the Drug Enforcement Administration to grow and research hemp, the university announced in 2018 one of the region’s first medical marijuana certificate programs.

While the federal Farm Bill removed barriers to scientific research on hemp, the 2019 Illinois law that encouraged a budding multibillion dollar legal weed industry included the creation of the Community College Cannabis Vocational Program

Medical marijuana license holders in the state have the option of funding community college cannabis programs that reach low-income students as part social equity funding requirements that come with expansion into recreational sales. 

Chicago area community colleges including Oakton, Olive-Harvey, and Moraine Valley all operate programs that provide workforce development training on growing, merchandising, and transporting the plant commercially. Illinois-based cannabis companies including PharmaCann, Cresco Labs, and Bedford Grow have invested dollars and subject matter expertise training students on these in-demand albeit historically illegal skill-sets. A homegrown workforce development, they say, is more efficient and scalable than recruiting veterans from Colorado, California, and other states with more mature marijuana programs. 

“There is an awakening happening when community colleges have new opportunities and we as a company can provide more access,” says Katie Leander, Social Equity & Community Impact Manager with PharmaCann, which earlier this month announced a $600,000 investment in Oakton to fund a new cannabis cultivation lab and scholarships. “We try to provide the basic foundation, showing them how big the industry is and what the positions are.”

In 2019, Oakton recruited a local dispensary operations veteran with a Ph.D. in linguistics to chair a cannabis studies program designed to meet the industry where it is today. More than 300 students have taken courses to date. Until there is change in the federal law, lab experiments at Oakton and other higher learning institutions will be on hemp and low-THC plants. 

“Most companies in the state are vertically integrated, so we are looking at it from that scope,” said Ruth Williams, Dean of Curriculum and Instruction at Oakton, adding that they are working on partnerships with other community colleges to provide certification for their agriculture programs. 

“It’s about getting those pipelines to be effectual,” added program Chair Steve Fix, who also works at the GreenGate Chicago dispensary. 

Moraine Valley began a Cannabis Retail Specialist program last August, providing 125 students access to 8-week courses touching on everything from cannabis law, to pharmacology to Microsoft Office training. 

“Learning in regards to this industry is similar to what was happening at the beginning of the IT boom,” said Diana Medina, Activity Director of Career Pathways at the College. 

Steve Papageorge, Moraine’s Executive Director of Corporate, Community and Continuing Education, said the program is designed to address the needs of an industry still in its formative stage. 

“As the industry itself matures,” he said, “the type of worker and the skills that that workers are going to need are going to evolve. We know like any other business that a successful cannabis company needs to operate efficiently at scale.”

Cresco provided initial curricular guidance to Moraine, which last month received an $85,000 donation from Bedford Grow to endow a scholarship program. 

Bedford vice president Paul Chialdikas said employee expectations in the industry are different now than during the early days of the state’s medical program.

“The expectations of new employees five years ago were ‘I partake and I know what I’m doing,’” said Chialdikas, a Moraine alum. “Then they hit a wall because they don’t understand compliance, the rules, and the medical benefits of the product.”

A former logistics and transportation professional with the Chicago Department of Transportation, Amanda Gettes joined Olive-Harvey two and a half years ago as Director of Strategic Initiatives. At the time, cannabis “was not on [her] radar.”

Olive-Harvey, based on Chicago’s Far South Side, provides training on subjects ranging from dispensary operations, to transportation to business plan development. 

“It’s all across the board and not just budtending,” she said. “We are basically the social equity component of Chicago’s community colleges.”

Cresco, which along with PharmaCann provides financial support to Olive-Harvey, created its community college program with a recognition that the company “needed a workforce that was ready to go,” explained Executive Vice President John Sullivan. 

“Especially in Illinois where cannabis 2.0 happened, this is the first highly regulated program that created a lot of very specific procedures to act within the law to maintain that license.”

This is a true career path with many defined needs, said Ron DiGiacomo, founder and Vice President of operations for Trinity Dispensaries in Peoria, who is exploring a partnership with a community college.

“Employees need to understand how to communicate to the consumer,” he said, noting that especially first-time retail customers of the product are often out of their comfort zones the first time they walk into a pot shop. “It would be nice to have an outlet to be able to hire employees that already have vocational training.”

Western Illinois University in Macomb, which offers minors in cannabis culture and production, anticipates attracting more students looking to develop cultivation skill-sets that are high in demand. 

“Horticulture enrollment was pretty low,” explains Dr. Andrew Baker, director of the university’s School of Agriculture, “so we thought having a cannabis minor would give it a shot in the arm.” 

Last year, a representative from the Illinois Department of Agriculture gave a talk to the program’s 18 students.

“You have some students that are focused on business and who want to make a lot of money,” said Dr. Shelby Henning, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Horticulture who leads the program. “Then you have those who are into counterculture, as well as all of the ag people.”

While cannabis consumption and commerce has existed among human beings for thousands of years, the industry in Illinois and nationwide is still in an embryonic stage. It’s incumbent upon those already immersed in the industry to pay it forward, says Jay Caauwe, whose firm Supercritical advises Moraine and Olive-Harvey on workforce development programs.

“The students of today are going to lead the businesses of tomorrow,” he said. “We owe them our combined acumen from experiential knowledge.” 

Southern Illinois professor Hales looks forward to the day when scientific research and university instruction can freely investigate the plant and all of its properties.

“CBD and THC work synergistically,” he explained. “By excluding one, we are limited to what the natural product can provide. It’s inevitable that this will be deregulated at the federal level. This excites so many people and validates the kind of folkloric and mythical stuff.”