by Bart Schaneman
Cultivation facilities, infused product companies and labs place a high value on extraction technicians. The jobs are sought after and demanding, and finding the right person to extract oil and concentrates in the lab can be a challenge.
Extraction is a hands-on job that requires attention to detail. The technician also should be mechanically inclined and alert to the dangers of the job. Butane can easily catch fire or explode, for example.
“The person who gets to process and handle our oil, we view as one of the most important jobs in the entire building,” said Ryan Abernathy, president and CEO of X-Tracted Laboratories 502 in Seattle.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Jim Makoso, co-owner and vice president of Lucid Labs – an extraction branding and licensing company with locations in Nevada and Washington state and a pending lab in Oregon – prefers someone without cannabis experience.
“Generally, when someone has cannabis experience they tend to bring their bad habits along with them,” he said.
That can lead to friction with the owners and other lab workers.
“The first guy we brought in had experience in a cannabis extraction lab, and it didn’t end well,” Makoso said. “We find that to be the case in lots of extraction labs. Just because they have extracted marijuana before doesn’t mean they know how to do it well.”
Some lab experience with a degree in either biology or chemistry can be useful. Makoso also might consider someone with cannabis retail or cultivation experience.
“It’s a lot easier to train someone with science knowledge the way we want things done,” he said, adding that it takes too much time to retrain someone with experience.
“In our industry – unfortunately because it’s been in the gray area for so long – people assume that just because they received education in the school of hard knocks, that’s the way things are supposed to be done,” Makoso said. “Unfortunately that’s not the case, especially in extraction.”
He focuses more on younger workers who tend to be hungry to learn. Older workers typically have more obligations and less hunger, Makoso said.
Abernathy likes to hire from within the company.
“We like to know the personalities we’re hiring,” he said.
Abernathy typically starts his employees in a packaging role, then promotes from there. He’s looking for someone with a strong work ethic who is mechanically inclined. The extraction equipment is complicated, requires daily maintenance and can be expensive. The machines in Abernathy’s lab wholesale for around $125,000.
He wants someone who is highly attentive.
“It is a process that does have the potential to be dangerous,” he said. “At the same time, it is a process that has many nuances that could change the outcome of the product.
Because extraction has that danger factor, he seeks people with good judgment, a level head and a background in science.
“It does help to have something of a scientific background so you can understand the processes that are going on,” he said.
Ron Gershoni, CEO of Jetty Extracts in Oakland, California, said “it’s such a tough position to hire for because there are very few people who have a lot of experience with extraction.”
He checks references from previous employers for character and work ethic. He wants to know he can trust someone working with his company’s expensive equipment.
He also wants someone who is friendly toward cannabis.
“We find that people who are into the plant and spend a lot of time researching techniques, terpene profiles and strains outside of work are able to bring in more fresh ideas because they are passionate about cannabis,” he said.
Like Abernathy, he looks for someone mechanically inclined.
“Extraction equipment is usually expensive and very prone to failure and breakdowns, so the ability to troubleshoot and learn how things work (are important),” he said. “People who like taking things apart and putting them back together are usually more able to diagnose the problems you come across.”
Extraction equipment has many components, and when those fail you need someone who can repair them.
“What we’ve found is that you constantly have equipment that you have downtime on because of various issues, and people who are good with a wrench and good with fixing stuff are extremely helpful to have around,” he added. “When something stops working, they can fix it themselves.”
In Gershoni’s eyes, chemical engineering is the best formal education with the most relatable skills.
“But it’s really about tinkerers,” he said. “They seem to have the most passion.”
WHERE TO LOOK
Makoso posts job ads on Craigslist and LinkedIn and looks for referrals.
But some of his hires have come from lateral movement. In Lucid Lab’s Washington state location, workers from other parts of the operation have been moved into the extraction lab.
Makoso, for example, has promoted packaging workers and even a dishwasher with a chemistry background.
“He was just looking for an opportunity to get involved while working on his master’s degree in organic chemistry,” Makoso said.
Abernathy recruits from retailers and partner processors so he can see how people perform in other jobs.
When hiring for base-level extraction positions, Abernathy has had good luck with people who have experience in the medical cannabis industry. But not everyone with a cannabis background fits the bill.
“To some degree that’s a struggle,” he added. “People in the cannabis industry will tell you – the stoner effect is real. If their only attachment to being at work is the product, it can be a problem.”
On the other hand, he’s hired people who don’t consume cannabis or have an interest in the plant, and they lacked passion in their work – which can also be a problem.
Historically, Gershoni would look only within his network and rely on word-of-mouth to find his technicians.
“It was safer to hire someone with some sort of contact with someone we knew,” he said. “Just for security reasons.”
But he’s moved past that as California’s marijuana industry has progressed. Jetty Extracts now uses online job boards similar to those Makoso mentioned, Craigslist and Indeed.
But he doesn’t favor any one method.
“It’s a really difficult process to find those right people,” Gershoni said. “Hiring is definitely one of the more challenging aspects of trying to scale an extraction process.”
How to Train and Manage
Starting out, Makoso expects his extractors to learn every position in the laboratory.
The new hire will eventually be trained in extraction and distillation, but the employee will also learn how to perform “low-end” tasks such as filling cartridges.
“That’s what we expect from everybody we bring on,” Makoso said. “They go through the ringer.”
He sets aside a month for training. The first two weeks are hands-on learning. In the second two weeks, the employee is observed and given tips on how to improve.
“In our organization we’re not really micromanagers,” Makoso added. “We set a production schedule. We clearly outline our expectations of what needs to be done.”
Makoso clearly communicates that the new hire shouldn’t bring in any preconceived notions.
“You know nothing about what we want to do,” he tells the new employee. “So don’t come in here thinking that there’s anything that you can help us improve. Master what it is we do well now. Then, once you’ve mastered it, that’s when we’ll expect you to help us improve.”
As one of X-Tracted Laboratories’ founders, Abernathy started the company performing extraction himself.
While the equipment and techniques have progressed and matured, he’s remained “very much involved in that process.”
“I think just having direct involvement in the business and familiarity with the processes allows us to take someone under our wing,” Abernathy said.
With new hires he emphasizes the importance of standard operating procedures.
“We make sure people are aware of everything going on around their role, not just in their role,” he added. “So people understand where they fit in.”
For Gershoni, one of the challenges in training and managing extraction technicians is how quickly the process and equipment changes.
“I don’t think a month has gone by in the last four years that we haven’t had a new piece of equipment come through our facility,” he said. “Even our longest, tenured employees are always learning new equipment and processes.”
He likes to let a new hire shadow another technician for at least a month before working alone.
“It takes about a month of working on a certain process to really grasp it,” he said. “And we have a lot of processes and equipment.”
Gershoni believes in letting the employee get hands-on experience before turning that person loose.
“The best way to learn anything is by doing it,” he added.