Marijuana companies turn to training, sommelier-like roles to stem employee turnover

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Image depicting gangier

Developing new roles in the cannabis space, such as a sommelier-like “ganjiers,” is among the strategies that help improve employee satisfaction and, ultimately, retention. (Photo illustration by Kate Lavin)

Fine restaurants employ sommeliers who can tell diners just the right bottle to pair with, say, roast duck or pasta.

Enter the marijuana industry’s newbie equivalent: the “ganjier,” who, like a sommelier, is a certified professional trained to guide retail customers to just the right pre-roll or edible.

The ganjier’s emergence points to a broader development in the marijuana industry that has roots in mainstream companies: Cannabis employers are opening their eyes to training and onboarding with the hope of positioning employees for long-term success.

That evolution comes as cannabis employment has mushroomed, with up to 415,000 full-time workers across the country this year, an increase of about 30% from 20201, according to estimates in the 2021 MJBizFactbook.

Despite that growth, employers are discovering that it’s not easy to keep people in some of those jobs.

Significant areas of the industry are grappling with high turnover rates, particularly among those who don’t succeed in the first few months of employment.

According to a 2020 report from Seattle-based Headset, retail budtenders are especially at risk of leaving a job for another in the industry, or leaving the industry completely.

“Most stores suffer from a relatively high rate of turnover, with a select few seeing almost none at all,” the notes.

 Headset examined turnover data in stores in Washington state and Colorado for the 2019 sales year.

The result: “In Washington, 47% of employees stayed, while only 38% did in Colorado.”

Training, onboarding key

Employee training and onboarding could help stem those departures.

Educators say both are particularly important for those working in cannabis, which has a steep learning curve combining elements of plant anatomy to health and safety to a wide variety of product categories.

“Most people that are being hired don’t have any cannabis experience, or have very limited cannabis experience, or have legacy market cannabis experience and don’t understand all the compliance nuances and requirements that are needed to operate licensed businesses,” Max Simon, the CEO and co-founder of California-based cannabis education and training provider Green Flower, said in a Zoom call.

In 2022, Simon is launching Green Flower Institute, a new set of training materials for the cannabis industry that he hopes will become the standard training for turnover-prone areas of the business.

So far, he and his team have developed the ganjier program, which includes rigorous training inspired by wine sommelier certification.

Green Flower will also offer three new certificates in retail, manufacturing and cultivation.

To develop the skills-based training materials, Simon and his team created a steering committee made up of more than 30 industry stakeholders.

They range from multistate operators such as New York-headquartered Ayr Wellness and Massachusetts-based Curaleaf Holdings, to California-based processor and manufacturer Flow Cannabis and Colorado-headquartered edibles maker Wana Brands.

Each company was invited to weigh in on what should be included in training materials for the various certifications.

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Green Flower’s team combined those concepts with operational, risk and compliance rules and standards such as Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP), federal and state regulations as well as third-party health and safety bodies such as the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Dan Curran, manager of manufacturing training at Florida-based MSO Parallel, is a member of the steering committee.

“Many people who are in the cannabis industry think they know all that there is to know about cultivation, but there is so much more to learn to become a true expert, as I’ve recently uncovered through my involvement in Green Flower’s training program,” Curran told MJBizDaily via email.

“Green Flower’s cultivation technician curriculum, for example, provided me with an abundance of information I was pleasantly surprised to discover, ranging from concepts around growing conditions for different cultivars to cleanliness to flowering cycles.”

Each program takes about 15 hours to complete.

According to Simon, they are relevant in all states and even internationally. The retail price for each certificate is $399.99. Founding members receive a discount for a limited time at $149.99.

“Sometimes they might be a little bit more rigorous than is necessary in your individual local domain,” Simon said.

“But if you’re an employer, what you want is to have the best trained people. And if this has everything that they need to know, and they pass that, then you have the best-trained people, and it only provides a benefit to your organization. Right?”

In Canada, where cannabis is federally legal, each province offers certification for budtenders. The cost can fall on the budtender or the employer, depending on the province.

But manufacturing and cultivation are not standardized, although a number of college and certificate courses are available from accredited and nonaccredited entities.

Communication, transparency help retention

Oregon-based Oregrown relies on Learn Brands, a Colorado-based company that also provides training.

According to Hunter Neubauer, co-founder and chair of Oregrown, in addition to that online training, he and his team have implemented better communication and transparency to prevent turnover.

They did so after receiving feedback from employees about a year ago that sent a clear message: They didn’t necessarily want more money; they wanted to feel empowered and valued.

“It’s really been an emphasis of ours to transition to a value and purpose-built organization,” Neubauer said in a phone interview.

“What that means is we pride ourselves in transparency, communication and training. So that, you know, every employee knows where they stand and what’s expected of them. They know where the business stands.”

As for Simon’s budding institute, while he hopes it will become the standard in budtender, cultivation and manufacturing training, he is just happy to see cannabis companies taking employee training and turnover more seriously.

But there’s still work ahead.

“Our first order of business was simply getting the businesses to acknowledge that training is a really important thing for these companies to do,” Simon said.

“And we’re not there yet. We don’t have critical mass yet.”