420 FILE - The cannabis industry looks to educate current and future workforces on sector opportunities.
It’s not uncommon for an idea to suffer severe backlash before experiencing wide acceptance. Change is often met with resistance throughout society. This is the reality of the cannabis industry. Before the turn of the millennium, Marijuana mainstreaming was still a rogue idea in need of a narrative reset.
Today, cannabis is a booming industry, with the U.S. market size alone reaching $28 billion in 2021 and projected to reach $197.75 billion in valuation by 2028. The sector is scaling rapidly, and a sign of the times centers on higher education’s approach to developing professional paths forward. As new job roles emerge and the demand grows, the market hopes students will benefit from a clearly defined path from formal education into the cannabis industry.
This reporter wanted to learn more about the market and those entrepreneurs focused on sustainable sector change and acceptance. Athena, a company out of California, appears to be honed in on developing what they call the ‘modern grower.’
The man at the helm of Athena, Brandon Burkhart, believes that while formal cannabis education is certainly helpful, there are deeper conversations to be had about how important it is to build a successful career in the industry.
“Since we launched Athena in 2018, we’ve been intentional about hiring people from all walks of life and circumstances, degree or no degree, as long as they had the right drive and hunger to succeed,” says Burkhart. “So far, with the speed of our growth across the continent as well as Europe, South America, and Australia, I’d say it was a bet that more than paid off. But the question about mainstreaming cannabis education is a nuanced discussion still in its formative phase, and there are many reasons for that.”
Since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, there are now 37 states where the medicinal usage of marijuana has been given the green light. The expansion of acceptance coincides with higher education offerings across the country.
According to BusinessWire, the industry had 321,000 full-time staff as of February 2021. The fact that 77,300 were added in the year leading up to the report shows a massive annual job growth rate of 32%. This is reflective of the enormous labor demand in the industry. But these workers have to be job-ready with the requisite skills and expertise to add value in an emerging field.
To make skilled workers available, universities and colleges are popping up with programs for students looking to make a career in the cannabis industry. While several programs exist, ranging from one-day courses to several weeks and months, some institutions are designing complete four-degree courses to provide robust cannabis education. In 2017, Northern Michigan University pioneered this move when it announced a four-year degree program in medicinal plant chemistry.
Beyond degree programs, research is also a critical component of the industry’s progress, with universities and colleges investing in research and setting up centers to this effect. Alabama, A&M University, Allan Hancock College, and the University of California, Davis, are just a few universities championing this move. The passing of the Medical Marijuana Research Bill on April 4, 2022, by the U.S. House of Representatives reflects a massive paradigm shift in this industry's perception, growing influence, and impact.
Onondaga Community College (OCC) in New York announced the launch of an online educational path called CannabisHub late last month. The Hub is a collaboration between OCC and the Cleveland School of Cannabis. OCC’s President Warren Hilton, in Syracuse.com, commented, “The industry is not fully mature in New York so it’s too early to make projections, but I suspect there will be early adopters,” Hilton said. “Once everything is moving forward, I think then we’ll see it gradually grow from there.”
A report released in 2021 examining the New York cannabis industry predicted a market that would employ over 50,000 people, earning them $2.2 billion per year by 2027.
Burkhart, though, warns students to be careful when choosing a school that offers cannabis programs. “Since the surge of marijuana legalization, many for-profit schools have popped up that are essentially snake oil salesmen,” he warns.
“For an industry still in its early years, it’s pertinent to do your due diligence and choose a school you can trust. Your school and program of choice should not be in violation of any state or government regulations on cannabis and should have a track record of solid training.”
So far, degrees focused on cannabis studies and programs centered on medicinal chemistry have had to rely on the general accreditation status through regional accreditation and certificate programs.
In Burkhart’s opinion, getting a formal education or doing a few programs to prepare for a cannabis career is a good idea, especially as the industry grows and becomes more mainstream. “There is currently no conclusive evidence to suggest that one cannot be successful without that education, especially since currently a considerable chunk of the cannabis workforce is non-college trained,” says Burkhart.
Innovation and Sustainability
The industry is becoming more active in addressing sustainability claims and monitoring practices with data and science attached to growth and scalability. Studies conducted by Colorado State University published in Nature Sustainability point to the excessive energy demand inside indoor planting operations.
The strain on power grids, water supplies, and carbon footprint factors are a concern that widely fluctuates according to location and the levels of indoor versus outdoor practices. ”Sustainability will need to be a priority in every part of the industry, from production to packaging to the supply chain,” reports Realm of Caring.
One of Athena’s missions is to help educate current and prospective members of the cannabis workforce about sustainable practices based on updated research. Burkhart’s Athena program develops educational materials to support consistent practices among its partners. “We are constantly providing industry knowledge and updates,” he says.
“We teach everything about our feed schedules, spray programs, sanitization and disinfection programs for our facilities, cultivation strategies, and more. Yet these aren’t set in stone because as we do more research and development to find better ways, materials, and strategies, we update the information we put out to the market, so it’s the best possible knowledge at any given time.”
Burkhart believes that in the nutrient and supply space of the cannabis industry, innovation and education are two sides of the same coin.
“Gaining solid education of the cannabis space prepares you to contribute to its innovation. The more you’re involved in innovating, the more you learn about the best ways to move the industry forward. These two factors are inseparable,” Burkhart says.
“In 2021, we invested time and resources into intense research and development efforts. Our insight from this exercise allowed us to diversify our product lineup and include pest management, sanitization products, and other innovative solutions to growers around the world.”
The cannabis industry continues to develop a market with expanded use cases across the U.S. The question of filling customer and patient needs will undoubtedly underscore higher education's importance in successful and sustainable outcomes within the industry.
Like many entrepreneurs in the space, Burkhart appears to be measuring twice to cut once, as the classic proverb posits. For the education sector, which is often under the microscope of scrutiny, it may be nice to be desired by a new and upcoming industry in need.
Burkhart advances cautiously, understanding the delicate nature between education and the industry. “As time unfolds, companies in this space should intentionally encourage and invest in opportunities for cannabis education. We can’t expect this industry to hit its potential without solid educational channels and opportunities. Whatever form this education will take is open to interpretation, but it has to happen.”
(Rod Berger is a TEDx speaker, an education and health care industry strategist having covered thought leadership and entrepreneurship for Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Scholastic and Huff Post. I serve as an Advisory Board member with Stand Up & Learn.)