A worker at PharmaCann’s cultivation site in Holliston, Mass. working in the veg room in December 2021. Skilled cultivation workers have been hard to source. Credit: Mike Fourcher / Grown In

Much like the rest of the economy, Massachusetts cannabis cultivators are dealing with a labor shortage, but the market for employers could get a lot tighter in 2022. Over 100 new cultivation facilities are expected to begin operation in the state in the early months of January, more than doubling the number of legal grow sites in the state.

Operators in the state that Grown In has spoken to off the record say they consistently have a significant number of openings and maintaining a full staff is difficult. Higher wages are often the best path to attract better applicants.

“Turnover is inevitable in any industry, especially when a market is growing as fast as cannabis is in Massachusetts,” said Pat Ahern, senior cultivation manager for New England Treatment Alternatives (NETA).

NETA, which is owned by MSO Parallel, has the financial foundation to meet the increasing demands from the labor pool, according to Ahern.

“When you add in competitive pay and a benefits package that is hard to find in other places, you usually end up with a solid candidate pool when a job opens,” said Pat Ahern. “We feel fortunate about that because cultivation jobs can be a challenge to fill. You need knowledgeable people who can handle the product, carefully and safely. Developing our people to be ready for new roles and responsibilities helps a lot.”

Ahern noted that about 60% of the positions the company fills in Massachusetts come from promotions or transfers within the company, though he did not address how the company deals with new vacancies that process creates.

Earlier this fall, state regulators noted that there were 164 provisional licenses in Massachusetts for cultivators, almost twice the amount of final licenses for cultivation. This was during the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Board most recent public meeting on Nov. 18.

At that time, 62 licensed cultivators had been approved to open for business. An additional 31 had final licenses but were still waiting for commence operation orders.

When applicants are given a provisional license, they have 90 days to submit a licensing fee to the state, as well as applications for all of its employees or agents. After a post-provisional license inspection, the applicant is eligible for a final license.

While hiring can be difficult, Brandon Pollock, CEO of Theory Wellness, said that his company has been lucky when it comes to keeping employees.

“Hiring in general today is a challenging endeavor, not just within cultivation but across the board, and beyond cannabis, too,” he said. “Cultivation is an area where we’ve felt this, but we’ve generally been fortunate to maintain strong retention rates with our employees.”

There has been a strong emphasis among state regulators and cannabis companies to create pathways into the legal market for people with experience in the illicit, or legacy market. The approach can be a mixed-bag for employers.

“We have incredible members of the team who have experience cultivating in smaller, personal gardens that are able to bring their existing knowledge to a larger facility and more structured environment,” said Pollock. “However, we also have had challenges with some former team members who aren’t able to transition into working in that formal environment. In general, the best cultivators are never ‘set in their ways’ because technology, techniques, and genetics are constantly evolving.”

Employee retention can also be difficult when the appeal of cannabis culture gets in the way of the reality of how much hard work is required to maintain a large-scale agricultural enterprise. For example, trimming is a demanding part of cultivation that requires workers to painstakingly prune the plants.

“It is no doubt a very demanding job, and we do our best to have our trim team work on a variety of tasks such as pre-roll production in addition to trimming,” said Pollock. “Generally, when people struggle with cannabis jobs, it’s about the expectation that a cannabis job is just a laid-back position when in reality, it’s really hard, physical work.”

On the other hand, as the cannabis industry grows and there is a decreasing amount of stigma about cannabis, more people are willing to be employed in the business.

“We are seeing a steady qualified applicant flow,” said Beth Seara, director of human resources at Jushi Holdings.

Jushi Holdings, which owns Nature’s Remedy in Massachusetts, currently has 70 job openings in cultivation sites in Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Nevada.

“The Company has been consistently filling cultivation roles on a regular basis,” said Seara. “We’re currently accepting about five to seven offers per week in cultivation, and we expect this number to increase as we grow and boost our presence in the markets we operate in and require more jobs to support our operations.”

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...