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Staffing for Cultivation Facilities: It’s About Acquiring the Right Skill Set

By Nathan Kelly

Working in the Cannabis Industry, one universal truth reigns above all others: Marijuana growers are not the most humble bunch.

Anyone who grows marijuana, grows the best marijuana. I’ve met cultivators with root rot and sickly hydroponic plants claiming to yield four lbs./light. I’ve also met cultivators that set their HPS lights one inch above their canopy and claim to get three lbs./light. And I’ve met people who pump more than 3,000 PPMs of nutrients into their feed reservoirs and claim to get two lbs./light.

Claims such as these, as well as my background in communications and workforce development in the building trades, encouraged me to pursue hiring industry virgins with a real eagerness to learn.

My name is Nathan Kelly and I run the cultivation facilities at Good Meds Network, a group of medical marijuana businesses in Colorado. I also work with groups in other states.

When I started working in medical marijuana industry six years ago, Good Meds, like many MMJ companies at that time, was a small startup business. We had one 5,000 square foot cultivation facility, with 75 flowering lights and three dispensaries.

In the beginning, the bulk of the cultivation and processing labor fell on the shoulders of myself and my business partner, John. Although the burden of performing laborious tasks required long work days with virtually no weekend or holiday breaks, it did provide strong knowledge base of the entire cultivation process and allowed Good Meds to grow while maintaining modest labor costs. Still, I longed for the day where we could hire and maintain a support staff to give our plants the attention that would allow them to truly thrive.

Two years later, with a thriving business, Good Meds moved operations to a large industrial warehouse. Fortunately, a fraction of the space was built for immediate use. We turned on 200 flowering lights immediately and my days as Good Meds’ lone cultivator were over.

Initially, finding cultivation staff was simple. There were thousands of people in Colorado eager to enter the marijuana business. Dispensary jobs were popular but cultivation positions were the most coveted. One Internet post simply titled Grow Jobs at Medical Marijuana Facility yielded over 1,200 resumes.

The response was staggering and the message was clear: People were excited about entering an emerging industry and growing marijuana!

It wasn’t necessarily a surprise to see this type of response. After all, my wife and I left our respective careers to pursue the very same opportunity. However, the sheer diversity of experience in applicants was startling: It was everybody! People with years of work experience and advanced college degrees, tradespeople and skilled laborers, young people just finishing college, some that had entered the MMJ workforce a few years earlier (like myself), and of course, experienced Colorado caregivers.

In selecting potential employees, I had to decide — how much I should value experience in unrelated fields? Should the quality of a resume and cover letter influence my decision to hire someone for a position that requires little writing? Would current growers balk at following the methodologies and procedures we spent years developing?

All MMJ companies certainly need experienced grow staff, but by filling that role myself, it allowed me to hire people with qualities that are important in any industry: Reliability, trustworthiness and work ethic. These people wanted in and demonstrated their willingness to perform any task the facility required, while earning their way into more sophisticated cultivation roles. The current lead cultivation manager at Good Meds has been a bud-tender, trimmer, gardener and mid-level manager. He excelled in each position before ascending to his current role. When employees inquire about how to advance in our company, I simply tell them that the blueprint has been laid out right in front of them, by their current boss.

Unfortunately, some of the excitement about being a grower tends to fade. Marijuana aficionados and connoisseurs flock to the industry with romanticized ideas of prancing through fields of buds, getting high on their lunch breaks or high level brainstorm sessions while wafting various aromas and listening to music.

The reality, of course, is much different. Scrubbing and rinsing; changing light bulbs, dragging around hoses, wearing protective eyewear and stifling uniforms. Glamorous it is not, yet many employees who recognize that (even though the day-to-day tasks are arduous and monotonous), know they are acquiring a very specific skill set that will serve them well in the rapidly emerging legal Cannabis Industry.

It may be a bit self-serving, but it’s an effective sales pitch. Good Meds will teach you how to grow marijuana, what you do with that knowledge going forward is up to you.

Nathan Kelly

Nathan Kelly

Nathan Kelly, is the Executive Vice President of the Good Meds Network, a medical marijuana business in Denver, Colorado. He has spent six years in the MMJ industry building the Good Meds cultivation business into a leading provider of high quality cannabis in Colorado marketplace. Good Meds’ Pure Power Plant was awarded the Denver High Times Cannabis Cup for best Hybrid Strain in 2014. He has also served as a marijuana consultant in Michigan, Illinois, Maryland and continues to try to expand Good Meds business into new national and global marijuana markets as they come online. Previously, he graduated from Michigan State University with an Interdisciplinary Humanities degree and worked as Public Relations specialist for a workforce development non-profit in Washington, DC. Nathan and his wife Kristi, who is also his business partner, live in Denver with their two dogs Stringer and Cici.

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