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Kelsey Appelbaum portrait against a pastel background

Industry Innovators: Kelsea Appelbaum, VP of Partnerships at Vangst

Keegan Williams

By Keegan Williams

May 6, 2022

Anyone who’s kept up over the last several years knows that it’s an exciting time for cannabis. Changing legislation has allowed increased access to the plant for medicinal and recreational purposes, and with the shifting attitudes and policy, the cannabis workforce is growing rapidly in turn. 

A 2021 Leafly report found there were 428,059 people employed in the U.S. cannabis space, compared to 321,000 the previous year. As the sheer number of industry professionals continues to balloon, the cannabis space is also playing a bit of overdue catchup, making strides to ensure it is competitive with other, longstanding industries.

The 2021 Salary Guide from Vangst Reveals Industry Workforce Boom

The staff behind Denver-based cannabis recruiting network Vangst can attest to the positive shifts within the industry, which are continually pulling in new workers who have never traversed the cannabis industry before. Founded in 2016 by Karson Humiston, Vangst allows cannabis workers and those looking to enter the industry tools to search for jobs, follow companies, learn about the industry and access a large network of cannabis professionals to forge ahead in the budding space.

Courtesy of Vangst

Vangst also monitors the cannabis industry’s changing trends and ensures their findings are available for the general public. Humiston begins Vangst’s 2021 Salary Guide noting that, despite the great resignation spawned by the pandemic, “we saw an incredible rebound in an industry that, like many others, faced endless pivots amongst the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain interruptions, and general instability.”

The salary guide provides insights on industry trends, salary data, positions and growth by sector, the state of legalization and more, though a number of findings indicate potential reasons why more people are deciding to enter the industry (aside from freely using cannabis on their own time, of course). 

More than 50 percent of all surveyed companies in the guide provided paid time off, medical, dental and vision insurance; more than one-third of surveyed companies provided 401(K) options, remote work schedules and long- or short-term disability support; and in 2021, cannabis professionals also had more geographic options for careers in cannabis than any year prior.

Why Are Workers Newly Entering the Cannabis Industry?

Experience is also almost always transferable. In 2021, many candidates left industries like agriculture, manufacturing, technology and professional services to pursue cannabis careers. 

With myriad options in cultivating, product branding, retail, point-of-sale software, marketing, sales and more, candidates are continually finding success using their outside experience in the emerging space.

According to Kelsea Appelbaum, vice president of partnerships at Vangst, this was not always the case. Back in 2017, when she first started at Vangst in a far less mature market, Appelbaum said cannabis businesses were primarily focused on finding candidates who specialized in cannabis. She said this strategy was to mitigate risk, associated with onboarding an outsider unfamiliar with industry standards, especially from a compliance perspective.

“If you fast-forward to now, that’s not really the case,” Appelbaum said. “There’s so much education around cannabis; there’s a lot more access to compliance; there’s a lot more access to previous market research through other market success, where now we can actually incorporate stronger talent from outside of the industry and bring them in.”

This also reigns true for compensation. In the earlier days, cannabis compensation was less attractive, especially for people outside of the industry. Appelbaum said this has shifted dramatically in just five years, and compensation has generally aligned with that outside the industry, allowing more talent to come in.

“I don’t even know really any companies at this point that don’t have a robust benefit offering,” she said. “It’s now the standard in cannabis, where, five years ago, it was absolutely was not. So that’s obviously helped attract really strong talent.”

Courtesy of Vangst

The Cannabis Industry and COVID-19

The pandemic also inadvertently helped increase the cannabis industry’s employment pool and shifted the public’s perception of cannabis, given that it was considered an essential industry. 

From a socioeconomic standpoint, workers see that cannabis is crucial to keep economies alive and allow states to enhance their current infrastructure.

“It’s allowed for schools to actually have more investment coming into it from those tax dollars which are earned through consumer sales; it’s allowing for a different dialogue to actually exist,” Appelbaum said.

As people fled other industries, or lost their jobs and didn’t know where to turn, Appelbaum said the pandemic highlighted workers, especially in hospitality and retail, have a similar skill set needed in cannabis. 

And candidates using Vangst aren’t just talking to a recruiter anymore, or waiting for an email or call back – Appelbaum said folks looking to join the industry now have the tools to “choose their own destiny.” As of April 2022, she said 94,000 people are actively looking at Vangst job boards, which launched less than two years ago.

“I was just at a conference this past weekend, and there were over a dozen people in leadership roles that said that they actually went on our website, applied for a job and got executive-level positions or leadership-level positions with companies, and we didn’t even talk to them from a recruitment standpoint,” she said. “So we just created the opportunity for connection, and that’s something we’re really proud of.”

It was evident to the Vangst team as the pandemic fully took hold in the U.S. back in March 2020 that there would be a major shift. Appelbaum recalled those initial days: The team was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of outreach they received and earnestly attempted to keep up with candidates looking for new employment. 

While the pandemic is a tragic and monumental historical event, Appelbaum said cannabis provided a safe haven for those who quickly lost their careers and livelihoods, the ability to join a growing industry and contribute to something bigger than them.

“To create opportunities for them to actually find employment, and also get reinvigorated in the job market because it’s a new industry – it’s exciting,” she said. “It’s something that 20 years ago, it was so taboo; even five years ago it was taboo. And now all of a sudden, it’s something that people are proud of, right? People are proud to work in cannabis. People are excited to actually represent this history.”

Vangst Weighs in on Diversifying the Cannabis Workforce

While recruiting for cannabis from other industries wasn’t always the standard, Appelbaum said the industry will ultimately improve with the new strategy. The more diverse the candidate pool is, the more diverse the industry will become, she said. It means companies can now be more selective with the individuals they want to hire and can fully nurture their company culture to build out how they want to show up in the industry. 

That’s not the only benefit of the industry expanding the scope of its potential workers: It also gives cannabis leaders more opportunities to connect and give back to communities disproportionately impacted from the War on Drugs. Appelbaum said that we aren’t just seeing a shift in policy, but we’re seeing a shift in social acceptance, and conversations around equity must come in tandem.

It’s not perfect, though. Appelbaum noted that the 2021 Salary Guide observed a dip in women in the cannabis space. There was also a decline in Hispanic or Latino cannabis employees.

“That doesn’t mean that it’s the standard, but I think that with that diversity, companies need to also understand that they should be continuing to build out diverse teams versus just settling for the first applicant,” she said. “That’s something we really pride ourselves on: We want companies to continue adding great talent and finding the right person for their team, which will hopefully continue leading to a diverse market.”

Courtesy of Vangst

The Future of the Cannabis Workforce

Looking forward, Appelbaum said that Vangst is constantly evolving just as much as the cannabis space. The company recognizes that finding people for this emerging industry is not a one-size-fits-all approach; rather, Vangst wants to focus on opportunities for every company of every size and any type of candidate, with their own specific needs and desires, looking for a role within cannabis. She said Vangst will continue embracing that multi-dimensional model as the industry and workforce continues to shift.

Vangst also did a recent survey, finding that more than 60 percent of cannabis companies don’t have a job board or career page, which limits the amount of traction they get for new candidates. With that in mind, Vangst is creating opportunities to give companies access to its job board, integrate it into their own website and allow candidates to gain a good understanding of what it means to work at that specific company. 

“We want to create opportunities like that, and we want to make them accessible for all companies so that they can have a leg up together as more strong candidates come in,” Appelbaum said.

While the Vangst team regularly assists candidates with entering the new industry, Appelbaum also recognized that she and her team have been part of this journey themselves.

“I’ll never forget joining Vangst,” she said. “We were sitting in a 10-by-10 room, had no idea what we were doing. We were just picking up the phone and figuring it out.”

Appelbaum recalled one of her first tasks: adding “everybody that works in cannabis on LinkedIn,” which took about 45 minutes back in 2017. She said today that the assignment would probably take 45 days of full-day searching.

As we continue navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and are better equipped and inching toward endemic status, Appelbaum said she and her colleagues are excited to see what the future holds. 

“To be part of that evolution has been really fantastic, and to see that it’s something that we’ve directly contributed to, it’s fun,” she said. “It also means that what we’re doing, it’s working and what we’re doing is actually helping people, which has always been what had driven us to do even harder work and create more opportunities for them.”

Keegan Williams

About The Author

Keegan Williams

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