Opinion: How cannabis companies can create social impact through employment partnerships

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Stacy Bryant

There are a few simple truths about social equity in cannabis: People from marginalized communities need job opportunities, companies need skilled workers and government mandates aren’t working as intended.

Here’s one more truth: Companies are independently leveraging the push for social equity to create a stronger, diverse workforce.

Particularly in states with established, maturing markets such as California, there’s an obvious need for cannabis companies to be proactive.

By forming strategic partnerships with organizations inside and outside the industry, companies are circumventing red tape to bring real change while boosting the workforce with skilled job candidates.

Both partners benefit financially and socially by bringing more people from underserved communities into the sector and providing them with needed training and living-wage jobs.

Problem-solving in the private sector

While there’s no denying a segment of the cannabis industry has direct ties to the legacy market (myself included), it’s still a touchy subject.

In the early years of state regulation, lawmakers weren’t keen to allow those with cannabis convictions into a now-legal enterprise amid the specter of federal crackdowns.

Those early limitations and poorly executed expungement programs failed to rectify decades of bad policy and disproportionate law enforcement.

As the saying goes, now that we know better, we do better – and I’m optimistic about New York’s equity-first approach for its adult-use market.

In established markets, however, it’s a different story.

Policy initiatives focused on fairness and justice have tried to ensure that people in marginalized communities (and those with criminal records from before legalization) have the opportunity to participate and have their voices heard in the industry.

The results thus far are mixed.

In my home state of California, regulators wrote specific language into the state’s cannabis social equity program to provide a variety of benefits and support, but there is mounting evidence – and frustration – that the program has had little tangible success.

Taking a broader view, the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) issued a study in early 2022 that examined social equity in 36 state markets.

The report concluded that none of the 15 states with social equity programs written into their legislation have created an equitable industry.

Strategic partnerships and how they work

Although the narrative surrounding social equity initiatives is disheartening, there are rays of hope.

Industry partnerships have proved effective in providing experience, credentials and access.

The Bay Area Community College Consortium (BACCC) in Northern California is a prime example of how industry partnerships with academic institutions can create opportunity.

The group of nearly 30 schools focuses on cannabis education development, as well as strategic grant projects that elevate job training for individuals without access to traditional four-year higher education.

A data program launched by the BACCC has enabled it to identify in-demand jobs such as Metrc specialist, accounting clerk, sales manager, extraction manager and retail manager, then develop courses centered on manufacturing safety and compliance, retail marketing techniques and other essential industry knowledge.

The data pull also confirmed what many in the industry already know: It is possible to earn a livable wage without a bachelor’s degree.

The BACCC also offers opportunities for potential employers to connect with students at school-hosted networking events.

Such networking opportunities can be instrumental in building a cannabis career.

Privately subsidized training programs also build skill sets needed for getting into this industry.

A trimmer-education program established by a cannabis staffing solutions provider is an example of a program available for partnership, while another might be an on-site cannabis extraction-training session by a manufacturing and cultivation services company.

Building new cannabis job pipelines

As the industry suffers and layoffs become increasingly commonplace, companies are partnering with staffing firms to help workers find related industry jobs.

New York-based Columbia Care and Michigan-headquartered Lume Cannabis are two examples of large operators that have worked with job-placement firms to help create a new chapter for employees after layoffs.

Another way to make a social impact is to establish robust internal diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies or retain a DEI consultant to advise on employment.

This will assist hiring managers with the navigation of sensitive territory and give companies tools and resources to develop an executable program to match a purpose-driving mission.

Similarly, do not hesitate to engage with subject-matter experts.

Partnering with an ancillary-services provider, such as an enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform that tracks company job needs across the industry, is another effective way to make an impact.

Some ERPs work with academic institutions to share hiring data that identifies how administrators and faculty can, and should, create curriculum to shape the next wave of skilled workers.

As the industry continues to develop and experience ups and downs, forging strategic partnerships to address social equity shortcomings and provide opportunities for marginalized communities benefits all involved.

Stacy Bryant is managing director at Higher Growth Search, a cannabis staffing solutions firm in California. She can be reached at sbryant@highergrowthsearch.com.

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