New pot industry luring college-grad job seekers

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture tour
Chris Filling, greenhouse manager at Delaware Valley University, leads guests from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture on a greenhouse tour. The 2016 visit was part of an effort to educate the public about hydroponics and aquaponics.

Growing up in a Colonial home in Downingtown, Alessandro Cesario cultivated an interest in the family garden, trying to become “in tune” with plants and insects, and by the time he was 16, he knew he wanted to work with plants in his career. Specifically, one plant: cannabis.

So he spent four years at Delaware Valley University, taking courses in hydroponics and working in greenhouses and on farms. His ambition was no pipe dream: After he graduated in 2013, Cesario made the jump from vegetables to cannabis — moving to Las Vegas to become the director of cultivation for Desert Grown Farms.

“It’s not like you’re walking into a cubicle, that’s for sure,” said Cesario, 26, who said he works 80 to 90 hours a week managing plants in a 58,000-square-foot warehouse. “Everyone’s super stoked to be here and just to be around the plants.”

Delaware Valley University, in Doylestown, which is one of the top providers of agriculture degrees in the state, offers students a chance to study hydroponics — a system for growing plants without soil and a technique used in the cannabis industry. By working with such plants as basil, students can gain specialized skills that can be applied to jobs in the medical marijuana industry.

As applicants young and old flood the marijuana job market in states across the country — and Pennsylvania is now getting its turn — millennials such as Cesario are among the first generation of college graduates who can job-hunt in the legal marijuana industry.

“We’re getting deluged with resumes,” said John Pohlhaus, CEO of Franklin Labs, a grower-processor in Reading.

Pennsylvania is one of 29 states that has legalized medical marijuana. Eight others have approved recreational marijuana, and Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) even introduced a bill last week to legalize medical pot on the federal level. In New Jersey, medical marijuana is legal, and a recreational bill was introduced in May, although Gov. Christie has vowed never to sign it.

Working in the industry requires passion, Cesario said: The delicate plants are “finicky,” and growing medicine means you can’t make mistakes.

“It’s really just overall plant knowledge that’s really helped me to come in here and just know what I’m doing,” Cesario said. Some head growers “are just more like basement growers where they’ve learned over the years” and might struggle to size up.

“DelVal really prepared me to make that jump straight into commercial,” he said.

The school, which is in the midst of creating a new academic specialty in hydroponics and aquaponics, does not teach students how to grow cannabis, nor is it grown on campus. But interim dean Christopher Tipping said he is asked about it “all the time.” His constant reply: “I’ll teach you how to grow a tomato, and if you can grow a tomato, you can grow cannabis.”

The college has about 15 students interested in a cannabis career right now, Tipping said, and administrators think it will increase. “As word gets out, our students are in demand,” he said.

Kurt Dyer, who graduated from the school in May, already has a job as a grower-cultivator at a cannabis growing facility in Maryland.

He didn’t quite know how to get into the industry when he began college, so he decided to network in the marijuana world while earning a degree in horticulture with a specialty in biotechnology.

“School gives you all the techniques and knowledge and know-how to grow the plants … [then] you just learn what that specific cannabis plant actually wants,” said Dyer, 22, who grew up in Albrightsville, Carbon County.

The 12 grower-processors permitted by the state have until January to get ready to operate, under the medical marijuana program approved by the legislature.

In McKeesport, Allegheny County, news reports showed prospective weed workers stretching down several city blocks waiting to enter a July 27 job fair for permittee PurePenn.

Pohlhaus, the Franklin Labs CEO, said he anticipates 30 to 35 jobs in its grow facility, to be filled by the end of the year. “It’s across the board, from people that are familiar with lab equipment, lab processing, agricultural workers, to accountants, financial officers.”

Pennsylvania Medical Solutions, a permittee in Scranton, also has received “countless” job inquiries so far, said chief operating officer Ari Hoffnung. The company is partnering with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, and Hoffnung plans to open the application process in October or November and hold a career fair.

“It’s great to see young people interested in the industry,” he said. “I think we’re at the point now where you can really have a real career and experience career growth and professional development.”

The budding industry also provides an unusual opportunity for companies to establish a more diverse demographic, a new status quo, said Shaleen Title, partner at THC Staffing, an industry recruitment group that focuses on diversity. Pohlhaus and Hoffnung both said they were looking to hire people from different backgrounds, education levels and identities.

“If you see a need, and you want to start a business in this industry… you can just do it,” Title said. “There’s no bias of what a recruiting [firm] in the cannabis industry looks like because there weren’t any. So now when people picture that, they picture me, a woman of color.”

For young people hoping to break into the field, Dyer recommends taking college courses. And because cannabis is legal only in some states, those dreaming of a marijuana career need to be prepared to leave home.

“It’s all about being excited to work in that industry,” Dyer said. “I’m ready to go wherever it takes me.”