Entering 2021 as the fastest growing industry in the United States, the cannabis industry is well-positioned to continue its upward trend, having added 77,000 jobs in 2020 to bring the number of full-time cannabis-related jobs to over 320,000 nationwide. With new large-population states adopting recreational cannabis use and poised to enter the market, the record 32% year-to-year job growth experienced in 2020 could actually increase. Growth in the industry should continue steadily throughout the next few years, with predictions that annual sales could top $35 billion and full-time jobs could reach 500,000 by 2024. This recent growth is even more astonishing when one considers that it occurred during a challenging and volatile economic year that saw the overall U.S economy shrink by 3.5%, unemployment nearly double, and 10 million Americans lose their jobs. Nevertheless, with cannabis declared essential during the pandemic, the industry was able to adapt its practices to account for social distancing, manage its supply chains, and adjust to pandemic-related employment resource issues that occurred early in the year to bounce back and begin adding more jobs by the fall of 2020. As revenues increase for cannabis companies, more and more massive companies are investing in cannabis cultivation and sales. And as more large companies begin to wade into the industry through investments, acquisitions, and mergers, one can expect equally large and dynamic growing operations to emerge, and with them, new trends in cannabis cultivation.
Expansion and Consolidation
The size and scale of cannabis operations have been increasing steadily over the last five years. While there will still be plenty of “craft cannabis” and luxury cannabis brands catering to consumers, bigger operations and bigger facilities are becoming the standard in the industry. The average square footage of cannabis production areas has grown from 18,200 sq ft in 2016 to 36,300 sq ft in 2020, and the number of grow sites for cultivation operations has evolved from primarily single grow sites to multi-facility operations. In addition to the increase in size, grow operations have also begun to change how their cannabis crop is produced. Since 2017 there has been a 20% decrease in warehouse and indoor grows, while greenhouse and outdoor grows have increased by 7% and 5%, respectively. These trends indicate that as farms become larger, an increased focus on maximizing production through scale and automation, division of labor, and specialization will become more prevalent. In addition, farms will attempt to get the most out of their real estate through auxiliary health and wellness-related cannabis cultivation, such as more hemp grown for grain and fiber and more biomass intended for extraction produced year-round in greenhouses. With the expansion of larger operations, the cannabis industry can expect to see an increase in consolidation as well, as larger companies form into vertically integrated multi-state operators that can better withstand market volatility.
Despite an increase in expansion and consolidation, not all trends suggest the industry is going full-on big business. Because of the diversity of cannabis strains, products, and processes, there is still plenty of room in the market for small to mid-sized operations to flourish with the right business model, vision, and talent pool. Many of the challenges faced by cannabis cultivators have remained the same for years, with the top obstacles cited by a recent Cannabis Business Times study being “insect and pest/disease prevention/control,” “increasing yield,” and “achieving desired terpene/cannabinoid content.” These challenges highlight the need for any successful cannabis operation to obtain highly skilled workers within their organization from top to bottom. Finding quality employees should not be an issue, though, because as demand outpaces supply, as has been the case with the dramatic growth of the past two years in the cannabis industry, revenue and compensation go up. This increase in compensation for just about every job in the cannabis industry has led to a remarkable in-flow of talent from other industries in the last few years, from sectors such as agriculture and pharmaceuticals to technology and retail.
Rise in Salaries
As the cannabis industry continues to grow and become more complex, divisions of labor deepen, increasing the need for highly skilled and specialized professionals that can tackle the challenges facing a large-scale cannabis cultivation operation. In just the last year, compensation on the c-suite level for cannabis cultivation has improved by an average of 10%, with highly skilled executive positions such as VP of Cultivation and Director of Cultivation making significant jumps in salary averages depending on region. Specialists such as Agronomists, Plant Breeders, Integrated Pest Managers, and Tissue Culture Technicians take care of the critical horticultural and botany details involved in cultivation and have also seen a salary rise of 6-9% industry-wide since 2020. Even entry-level positions on a farm responsible for much of the detail-oriented manual labor involved in growing and preparing cannabis, such as cultivation technicians and trimmers, have seen an increase in compensation of 5-9%. These salary trends suggest a higher level of talent entering an increasingly skilled industry and a competitive level of compensation available to attract that talent.
New Job Titles in the Industry
With highly qualified workers entering the cannabis industry from other sectors, salaries have risen along with new cannabis businesses’ demand to attract skilled professionals to their ranks. The legalization of recreational cannabis has led to a more specialized and traditionally trained hiring pool than the gray market of the past, meaning new positions and job titles with more specific job descriptions emerging in the industry. Below is a list of new cannabis job titles on the cultivation side of the cannabis industry and the average rises in compensation for each.
Director of Cultivation
$93,000 to $186,500
Median salary: $139,750 (10% increase)
A director of cultivation is responsible for ensuring the production of high-quality cannabis that is compliant with all state and federal laws. They manage the growing operation, set standard operating procedures for their team, create planting and harvest schedules, plan pest control structure, and manage the cultivation team. Like many executive positions in the cannabis industry, demand is strong for high-level managers with a strategic vision and extensive experience, driving the salary for director of cultivation up 10% from 2019 to 2020.
$59,000 to $97,800
Median salary: $78,400 (10% increase)
Plant breeders are responsible for the breeding, development, and introduction of competitive proprietary varieties of cannabis for production. Plant breeders work intimately with crop populations and cultivators to perform cross breeds, evaluations, and plant selections. Breeders are responsible for planning, organizing, and executing a cultivation operation’s breeding strategy, as well as developing and optimizing breeding designs and field trials, managing seeds, and overseeing breeding databases. Plant breeders also analyze and catalog the data generated in their work. The demand is high for plant breeders, and the average salary has reflected that demand, increasing a full 10% from 2019 to 2020.
$79,000 to $104,500
Median Salary: $91,750 (6% increase)
Agronomists plan, report, and execute evaluations that develop and improve cannabis production, often utilizing location and sensor technology to record and analyze data. They evaluate production techniques to discover improved planting, cultivation, and harvesting methods to increase yield and quality. Agronomists also help develop innovations to control plant diseases and eliminate insect pests.
Integrated Pest Manager
$61,500 to $79,500
Median Salary: $70,500 (6% increase)
An integrated pest manager is responsible for identifying pest issues and managing the use of pesticides in a cultivation environment, including the preparation, application, and documentation of pesticide treatments. An integrated pest manager is responsible for detecting insects, diseases, and viruses among the plants and developing an integrated pest management strategy for the entire operation. An IPM must be familiar with laboratory tools and techniques to correctly identify target pests and pathogens that may threaten the cannabis crop.
Tissue Culture Technician
$55,000 to $76,800
Median Salary: $65,900 (7% increase)
A tissue culture technician assists in the day-to-day lab activities in a tissue culture production environment, such as processing plant materials, preparing media, recording data, and collecting and processing tissues for diagnostic testing. A tissue culture technician also gathers data for inventory management and research & development, collaborating with other cultivators on new techniques to improve quality and yield.
$52,000 to $68,000
Median Salary: $60,000 (9% increase)
Cultivation technicians are responsible for assisting with all aspects of the company’s cultivation operation, from seedling to harvest. Supports the Director of Cultivation in various ways such as planting, trimming, watering, and pruning plants. Maintains the cleanliness of growing areas and may assist in monitoring and documenting plant growth.
$31,500 to $36,500
Median Salary: $34,000 (5% increase)
Trimmer is the most common entry-level position in cannabis cultivation. Trimmers are responsible for removing buds from harvested plants, trimming the leaves for functional and aesthetic appeal, and drying the buds to prepare them for manufacturing, processing, or sale.
*The actual salaries for each position will vary by several factors, including region, company size, and years of candidate experience. To customize this compensation data for your location, increase or decrease the national salary numbers listed above by the percentage for the city you are interested in. (consult the chart in the CannabizTeam’s 2021 Cannabis Salary Guide to find which states have a higher or lower compensation [by percentage] than the national average salary)
Cannabis education programs are becoming more prevalent, with schools like the University of Illinois, Stockton University, Colorado State University, and others offering degrees in the cannabis field, from cannabis biology to medicinal plant sciences and cannabis production. One of the reasons it is crucial to attract and train these new highly skilled workers within the cannabis industry is the rise in cannabis education amongst consumers. At the onset of the legalization of cannabis, product was flying off the shelves as many consumers were excited by the new ease and availability of a range of cannabis products. As time goes on, particularly in states with several years of legal cannabis under their belts, consumers are beginning to develop more particular tastes and demands surrounding their cannabis consumption. This new educated and discriminating cannabis consumer class has more sophisticated appetites for specific cannabis products, strains, and variants. The importance of premium, high percentage THC levels remains an important metric for cultivation operations and is now joined by a newer focus on the popularity and dynamic qualities of certain terpenes. With over 100 different terpenes identified in the cannabis plant and ongoing research regarding how they can dictate not just the aromatics and quality of the cannabis but also the differentiating effects of various strains on the body and mind, terpenes add another level of depth to the horticultural art and connoisseurship of cannabis. Because of these trends, farms must place a high level of importance on their operations’ research and development to create new proprietary strains and terpene combinations and remain at the forefront of the industry.
Another aspect of cannabis cultivation being driven in part by consumer education is that of sustainability and ethics. Just as there has been a recent increase in consumer awareness regarding how food is sourced and what practices are involved in its production, cannabis has begun to experience the same scrutiny. Maximizing yield by utilizing innovative techniques such as crop steering and genetic engineering not only benefits a grow operation from a product yield standpoint but can also result in lower water and electricity usage and a more environmentally friendly business. Similarly, sustainable and regenerative farming practices such as the use of organic and natural fertilizers, soil amendments, and pest control methods can contribute to keeping a grow operation environmentally “green,” which has become an important metric for the new crop of discerning consumers with full access to comparative tools online to make informed decisions about where and how to spend their money on cannabis. Sustainability credentials are not only crucial to stewards of the land for the health and sustainability of the environment but are paramount to staying competitive in today’s competitive cannabis marketplace. Sustainability practices will also allow growers to meet state regulatory standards more efficiently and allow for the permeation of cannabis innovations into other areas of farming, benefitting the entire agricultural industry.
The future of cannabis cultivation is bright. With more states legalizing adult-use recreational cannabis, the industry will continue to grow and change, undoubtedly leading to new and exciting innovations and breakthroughs as more exceptionally talented people jump into the stimulating and complex world of cannabis cultivation. With growth will come new challenges and obstacles, as well as new opportunities for radical solutions. A successful operation will be prepared to embrace innovations and adapt to new challenges to remain on the cutting edge of this exciting and dynamic industry.