By Elizabeth Dobbins
GARDNER -- Though the state's budding marijuana industry may be creating jobs in North Central Massachusetts, finding a qualified candidates can be a challenge, according to some inside the industry.
If you ask Mount Wachusett Community College, the answer is in the (virtual) classroom.
Among the college's newest offerings: the Cannabis Career Training Program. The online, not-for-credit program is a collaboration between the college and a private company, Online Cannabis Education, and covers topics from growing and cooking marijuana to the business and legal side of the industry to "budtending," a term for dispensary jobs.
"It just made sense to develop a program that covered all areas of it to fill the need,"said Jeff Zorn, CEO of the Cannabis Career Training program.
"It was so common that I would (hear) 'I'd love to get into that. It's an up and coming thing, but I have no idea where to start.'"
The course's addition to the catalog is part of an effort to meet a workforce need and drive the local economy, according to Rachel Frick Cardelle, Interim Vice President of Life Long Learning at MWCC.
"The (college) president right away said we need to evaluate this like we would evaluate any program that came to us for workforce development," she said. "Is there a need? Does the industry want to see it? (Are) people who come out of the training .
The answer to at least the first question, according to Bert Vining, is a resounding yes.
"It's genius," he said when asked about the program.
Vining is the vice president of external relations at RevolutionaryClinics, II, which recently opened a medical marijuana cultivation facility on Oak Hill Road in Fitchburg. Though his company can find people who have been growing "off the radar" prior to the the legalization of medical marijuana in 2013 and the vote to legalize recreational marijuana last year, some have "bad habits," he said.
At the same time, drawing talent to Massachusetts from more established marijuana markets west of the Mississippi can be a non-starter, because of wide differences in expected salaries, according to Peter Bernard, president of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council.
"Part of the problem is money," he said. "The people who are worth it expect to get $200,000 to $250,000 a year in salaries. That's not unreasonable considering they're producing millions and millions of dollars of product."
But in Massachusetts, Bernard said he has heard offers for the same job -- the person in charge of the grow -- for $60,000 to $80,000 annually.
However, not all jobs command such a high salary. An industry job board, Canna Recruiter, reports entry level positions often pay between $11 and $20 an hour.
Neither do all positions require as much knowledge, according to Jeff Herald, who reports an abundance of applicants at Garden Remedies, another medical marijuana cultivation facility in Fitchburg.
"We have a pretty strong team here so a lot of it we're able to teach," he said. "We try to find people with the right attitude."
For the more senior positions he said they try to develop from within, but when they do post job listings, the response is "overwhelming," he said.
"I think people just see the field as a growing field and it has a lot of opportunities," Herald said. "They want to get in on the ground floor."
Other positions, like those in the extraction lab, draw employees with high-level degrees, though not directly related to marijuana.
"In our lab we have a Ph.D. chemist and a master of science in plant technology," Herald said. Lab technicians are also among the company's 70 employees.
Bernard said the class at MWCC represents a need, though he would like to see accredited programs developed by existing universities as well as opportunities for masters degrees.
"We need licensing regulations or some legislation that would let somebody open a school or go to some place like Mount Wachusett and have an accredited program," he said.
It would be a way to learn the basics and decrease the chance for mistakes, including overfeeding or under-watering plants, according to Bernard.
"There's no one right way, but there's a lot of wrong ways," he said.
According to the CEO, Zorn, the MWCC offering meets the industry's educational needs.
The standalone program costs $299 for a year's access to online training videos, quizzes and certification exams. Though he eventually hopes to bring the program to other universities, he said MWCC is his company's first collaboration with an institution of higher education.
"I've been in this industry since 2009 and I recognized way back then there was a need for more education in the industry across the country," he said. "The business has grown immensely over the years."
While the certification offered by the course is not required, he said it "sets students apart from other applicants."
The program was first introduced at MWCC in fall of 2016 but because of legal regulations regarding its name, the college stopped offering the program for several months while it was renamed, according Frick Cardelle.
The college began offering the program again this semester though, as of mid-October, had not enrolled any students.
Frick Cardelle said the MWCC vetted the Online Cannabis Education, before adding it to it's list of offerings.
"They (Online Cannabis Education) take it really seriously," she said.
While marijuana sales and cultivation can still draw mixed reactions, she believes this program will bring needed workforce training.
"If people are going to work in any industry I would want them to be educated in any industry they're working in," she said. "This is a way for them to do that."
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @DobbinsSentinel.