When Gene Ray was studying biology at Fisk University in Nashville, he started to use marijuana regularly. At the time, he wasn’t thinking that if combined, his scientific expertise and interest in cannabis could make a career.
While studying medicinal plant extracts in Hawaii later, it was the first time Ray, a pharmaceutical chemist, thought that his skills could apply to marijuana.
“I was like, oh! You could do this with weed,” Ray recalled from his office at Garden Remedies’ cultivation facility in Fitchburg, where he is the vice president of laboratory operations.
With the burgeoning marijuana industry comes new jobs. And most everyone taking these jobs is entering the industry for the first time. From the retail floor at adult-use shops to the science behind creating products or heading up a marijuana company’s human resources department, the field offers opportunities for people with a range of degrees and backgrounds.
After studying in Hawaii, Ray continued his research in South Korea and Thailand before teaching in China. A visit from a friend who was a Massachusetts native and working in the marijuana industry helped convince Ray to move to the state, where he landed in 2016, just a few months just before recreational cannabis was legalized.
At Garden Remedies, Ray jumped right into the science of marijuana and learning how to adapt his background to the industry.
“My skillset was mostly working with small, small extractions and more isolations and so this was like we need to work on bulk,” he recalled.
Walking through the Garden Remedies facility, Ray can break down the science of extraction into simple terms, explaining how complex machinery is used in the process of making edibles, concentrates and vapes.
In 2016, Ray made his first marijuana vape.
“Ever since then, we’ve been trying to figure out ways to make it a little bit better and not as harsh,” said Ray.
As the leader of the laboratory, Ray now spends a lot of time at his computer, arranging meetings and overseeing the process from a higher level. But he still loves to get his hands dirty in the lab.
“The fact that I enjoy cannabis and the fact that I enjoy the science behind it, I enjoy motivating people to keep doing it and just to keep learning,” he said. “This is a natural plant. You’re going to always have growers that are going to want to push the envelope and have some crazy genetics. I want to be the person to extract those compounds.”
Ray’s work helps create products that head to the kitchens of marijuana businesses.
Those kitchens have jobs attracting culinary professionals to the marijuana industry.
After Lianne Whalen graduated in 2009 with a degree from Johnson & Wales University, she worked in catering, corporate dining and a job at a bakery. Then, she saw online that Cultivate was seeking a chef. Cultivate started as a medical dispensary and was one of the first two shops to sell recreational marijuana in November 2018.
Now Whalen is Cultivate’s executive chef and leads the kitchen, which currently has a staff of about nine people. Like Whalen, none of the staff had experience in the cannabis industry before coming to Cultivate. Instead, they found their way to the Leicester dispensary by the way of corporate dining, local restaurants and a bakery.
“It is very much a kitchen. So I’m able to translate my culinary skills to this industry because we’re creating products all the time by hand, in house,” Whalen said. “We’re doing research and development, we also are launching a topical line, so we’re dabbling in a little bit of everything.”
Whalen, who lives in Worcester, said she was always passionate about food. She grew up cooking with her grandparents and father, she said, recalling frying fish in a cast iron pan.
“I’ve just always loved to cook. I’ve always loved to be creative. When I grew up it was either I was going to be an artist, a florist or a chef,” said Whalen, who grew up in Hardwick and Worcester.
She had never worked in the marijuana industry before but knew her training from Johnson & Wales could help her bring marijuana into the kitchen. She relies on math skills for proper dosing.
“I’ve always been interested in food and healing people,” Whalen said. “The best part of my day is when someone says they ate something that I produced and they felt better, could sleep, didn’t have nausea, their pain went away. It’s win-win, really. It’s a dream job.”
Cultivate employed 30 people before recreational sales began. Currently, there are 105 employees, a spokeswoman said.
“We’re looking for those skills that easily translate into this space,” Charron said. “Our culture here is very collaborative and teamwork is a huge factor when we’re looking at hiring.”
Garden Remedies may seek specialists like chefs and for positions in finance or senior level operations. Skills from the manufacturing industry translate well, Charron said. But more so, they’re seeking individuals with the necessary soft skills, people they can train on the technical side of what happens every day at Garden Remedies.
“I’ve found that people that are very passionate about cannabis and the products, they’re either a grower or they’re passionate about cannabis in general in which case those people tend to lean toward retail,” Charron said.
Massachusetts has been among the states to add thousands of marijuana jobs in the U.S., according to Leafly’s annual Cannabis Jobs Report.
As the state passed its first anniversary of adult-use marijuana sales, 10,226 jobs were added, according to the report, which says that in total, legal cannabis has added 13,255 full-time-equivalent jobs in Massachusetts.
As of January, there were 243,700 full-time-equivalent marijuana jobs in the U.S., representing a 15% year-over-year increase. In 12 months, the industry created 33,700 new jobs nationwide, making legal marijuana the fastest-growing industry in America, according to Leafly. In addition to Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Illinois have added a significant number of jobs in the last year.
A search on indeed.com indicates cannabis jobs are available across the state, from full-time to an internship. Rates listed there range from $15 an hour to $37.50, a mix of entry-, mid- and senior-level positions.
A packaging technician at Happy Valley Management in Gloucester can make $16 an hour weighing, packaging and labeling marijuana products, according to a job posting. Also at Happy Valley Management, a trim technician can make $14 an hour harvesting, trimming, curing and drying cannabis plants. For that position, a candidate must be able to hand trim 55 grams per hour, or 1 pound per eight-hour shift, according to the job post.
Temescal Wellness is seeking a production associate who can make $14 per hour handling the day-to-day duties of a medical cannabis cultivation facility. In its job posting, Temescal touts perks like a casual dress code and volunteerism.
At Garden Remedies, entry-level positions average $16 or $17 per hour, said Charron, who said the environment of a cannabis business is worthwhile for applicants looking at several industries.
“Everybody in this company is passionate about what they do and that is one common thread. Everybody has such different backgrounds but everybody is passionate about the mission and what we’re doing and why we’re here. That’s going to be the biggest difference between this and another industry,” Charron said. “You’re going to kind of use the same soft skills no matter what company you’re in or what industry you’re in but in cannabis its just a passion for the plant and what it can do.”
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