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Majoring in marijuana: Colleges ramp up training for weed industry jobs as demand for pot grows

Ally Marotti, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

Marijuana companies are on the prowl for new employees, but experience growing weed in the basement likely won't fly on a resume.

The bar for entry-level positions is moving higher as marijuana companies grow so fast it is no longer practical to train workers new to the industry. Growers and dispensaries increasingly want employees with academic training. The result: More colleges are starting to offer, for lack of a better term, a degree in growing marijuana.

"You're going to need somebody who's got some knowledge (that can) then adapt that to the facility," said Paul Chialdikas, vice president of sales and marketing at Bedford Grow, which has a cultivation facility in Bedford Park, Ill. "Timing is going to be critical for us to grab an employee that has experience. ... We need them now."

Most employees that have entered Illinois' young marijuana industry did so either with experience earned in the black market or in states with more mature cannabis programs, like Colorado or California. Often, they have not worked with the plant at all.

Brian Kirkland and Jake Tracy started at Bedford Grow about three years ago without any experience. Kirkland was a butcher, and Tracy was in landscaping. Like all new employees at the facility, they started as trimmers, and have since worked their way up. For the past two harvests -- or about six months -- Kirkland and Tracy, now assistant cultivators, have each been in charge of the crop in one of Bedford Grow's four grow rooms.

Sunglasses on, Kirkland moved among marijuana plants as blazing grow lights beat down, preparing a solution that would deliver nutrients to the plumping buds. The plants in his grow room were about a month from harvest, and they needed the food to produce dense, flavorful buds. Kirkland knew the solution would clog the tubes normally used to water the plants, so he had to feed them by hand.

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In a plant-filled room nearby, Tracy cleaned his water lines. The plants in Tracy's room were younger than Kirkland's, maybe two months old. "In about a week they'll be ready to start growing buds," he said.

Kirkland and Tracy learned how to tend to the highly valued marijuana plants by apprenticing under the facility's head growers. Soon Bedford Grow will add more cultivation rooms and need more growers to manage them. On a recent afternoon, Chialdikas opened a door at the facility to a sprawling room currently used for storage.

"This is the opportunity for us when the market goes rec (recreational) to add eight more growing rooms," he said, looking out across the mostly empty space.

Many Illinois marijuana operators are already expanding their growing facilities. They're working to supply a medical marijuana program that has added 25,000 patients in the past year, and they're getting ready for the state's potential legalization of recreational use, which could send demand soaring.

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