Karson Humiston started a student travel company while she was still an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. But before she graduated, she’d already decided to do something bigger.
Humiston took stock of her growing professional network–mainly comprised of fellow students and recent grads–and tried to reverse-engineer an idea that they’d all find useful. “A hangover pill would be great,” she quips, “but you have to be capable of creating one.” So if not that, then what about jobs? she thought. “Everyone’s parents would say, ‘The clock is ticking, what are you going to do?'” says Humiston. And since she and her friends were applying to jobs they weren’t passionate about, in fields that didn’t excite them, she recalls, “I started looking into industries that I thought would be exciting to millennials.”
That’s what led Humiston, who’s now 24, to start looking into cannabis.
Opportunities Hidden In Plain Sight
Unlike so many other fields, Humiston soon realized, the cannabis industry has high growth potential and lots of opportunity for career development–even if a candidate had no prior experience. What could be better suited to entry-level and early-career professionals? This insight was one reason why Humiston found herself in the middle of a cannabis trade show in early 2015. (The other was the fact that her dad is involved in the industry.)
According to Arcview Market Research‘s “The State of Legal Marijuana Markets” report, the state-legal cannabis markets will continue to grow at a 27% rate through 2021. And despite conflicting signals from the Trump administration, the 2016 election saw eight more states vote to legalize marijuana, for a total of 28 that now have medical marijuana laws on the books. Legal spending in North America totaled $6.7 billion last year; for perspective, 87% of that came from just five states and Canada.
At the conference, Humiston started to do some reconnaissance. “The first booth I went to was for the Marijuana Investment Group,” she recalls. They told her they were looking for a junior financial analyst and two junior staff accountants. Other companies had positions such as marketing associates, retail store managers, and others–all of which could be filled by people who didn’t have experience in the cannabis industry, but could utilize transferrable skills.
Humiston didn’t waste any time. She created business cards on the spot for a company called Gradujuana (the logo was a weed leaf on a graduation cap) and started pitching herself as a recruiter. “I had no experience in recruiting,” Humiston admits, “but I am a people person.” Soon afterward she moved out to Denver and started playing matchmaker for her network of millennial job seekers and the cannabis companies she’d begun to develop relationships with.
The Bumpy Road To A Cannabis Recruiting Business
But it wasn’t long before Humiston hit a roadblock. One company in need of a high-level construction project manager who was used to paying recruiters 20% of new hires’ annual salaries told her, “You don’t seem like you know what you’re doing.” The remark prompted Humiston to change the name of the company to Vangst (it means “catch” in Dutch) in 2016 and ditch the amateurish logo. At that point, she also hired a recruiter with experience scouting executive-level players. Others soon followed.
The thing they all had in common was that none of them had industry-specific experience, either. “They’re from all different backgrounds–tech, sales, pharmaceuticals,” Humiston says. And the people they were recruiting were likewise new to the industry. “Store managers from Chanel and Neiman Marcus left retail and came to work in a dispensary,” she adds. Even so, it quickly became clear that the stigma still surrounding the cannabis industry was going to be another stumbling block. Humiston admits that messaging potential candidates on LinkedIn garnered plenty of generic declines, but she says, “It’s beginning to change.”
As the pool of talent began to grow, Humiston noticed that there were plenty of positions that didn’t need a recruiter to facilitate hiring. She cites a Leafly report that indicates 149,304 Americans currently hold jobs in the cannabis industry, and “the bulk of them,” she notes, “were hourly-level positions.” ZipRecruiter’s data bears this out. According to CEO Ian Siegel, the cannabis industry has shown a 68% increase in job opportunities since 2015, and positions like “soil scientist,” “bud mentor,” “marijuana cultivator,” “bud-tender retail associate,” and “post-harvest and packaging supervisor” are among the job titles with the largest increases.
Humiston tried listing some of these positions on social media and job boards, but not all of them were open to it. “Facebook pages related to cannabis business have been shut down,” she points out. “In general, some job boards don’t let you boost your job if it’s cannabis-related. We had trouble with Indeed,” she continues, “probably because they work with a lot of companies who don’t want to support the industry.”
A LinkedIn-Like Solution
Whatever the case, these obstacles led Humiston to take matters into her own hands. “I said, ‘Let’s build an awesome job board,'” where companies could build their profiles, add pictures, and post their listings as well as search candidates by region and send messages.
Since officially launching Vangsters at the end of last month, Humiston says 7,900 people and 55 companies have completed profiles on the platform. “We have an additional 100–150 roles we are posting,” she adds. It’s free for candidates to use, and companies pay $69 a month to build their own profiles, post unlimited jobs, and have unlimited access to candidates. It’s a steal in comparison with LinkedIn, which Humiston says can charge employers up to $400 for just one job posting. (According to LinkedIn, “The actual amount you’re charged depends on your daily budget and the number of job posting views from candidates.”)
Vangsters doesn’t use algorithmic matching yet, but that’s “part of the road map” for 2018, Humiston asserts. But even without artificial intelligence, she claims, the industry and its current pool of candidates is already pretty diverse. That’s partly thanks to the number of underrepresented minority business owners who are already working in all areas of cannabis.
According to the MJ Business Report, 19% of cannabis businesses have been founded by racial and ethnic minorities. Women hold 27% of executive-level roles in the industry overall, but in certain sectors those numbers are higher. For example, 42% of the executive positions at ancillary services companies are women, and 35% are women at medical dispensaries and recreational stores.
Hopes For High Growth From Here On Out
At Vangst, besides being woman-owned, Humiston says 17 of her staff of 24 are women, and she’s committed to doing what she can to diversify the rest of the industry. “Obviously, being a woman and a woman-owned company, we have the opportunity to shape this industry,” she says. At Vangst career fairs, Humiston regularly partners with industry associations focused on minorities to ensure that talented workers in those groups have access to Vangst’s platform.
The biggest challenge in talent acquisition, according to Humiston, is finding the right culture fit for the industry. “It’s not similar to others,” she contends. “It is a startup, and every company in it is a startup. Most are less than four years old.” She says that taking people out of corporate America and putting them into cannabis startups can be a little overwhelming for some–especially if a crisis arises and “it’s all hands on deck.” People have to want to flex into different roles within their jobs, she explains, because every business is growing fast, and employees need to be adaptable.
On the other hand, Humiston mentions that one person started out as a trimmer making $12 an hour, and in less than four years he’s worked his way up to a senior position making $80,000 a year. Humiston says she hopes to fill 10,000 jobs of all kinds over the next three years. “It’s the perfect industry for those who want to grow quickly.”
Update: This story sparked a frank Twitter conversation about the diversity and criminal-justice issues surrounding employment in the cannabis industry.
She might not have only made it for white people. But these jobs are only available to white people because of the system. Jeez.
— Jason (@JasonGr1992) September 25, 2017
Hope they take all the black folks with weed felonies ¯_(ツ)_/¯ https://t.co/jOTFFVmcDG
— Vann R. Newkirk II (@fivefifths) September 25, 2017
White people selling weed: pioneers & innovators
Black people selling weed: criminals & delinquents
— Moyo ???? (@movaughan97) September 25, 2017
The legal cannabis industry has been estimated at $7 billion, but much of the opportunity in the space is closed off to those with criminal records for drug-related offenses–both would-be entrepreneurs and prospective hires alike. And since America’s criminal justice system disproportionately penalizes Latinx and African Americans on minor drug charges, cannabis employers are already having to make hiring decisions with major implications for diversity in the field.