Prior dispensary experience an asset and a risk for pot retail workers

TORONTO — A cannabis-related criminal past won't necessarily disqualify someone from working at one of the soon-to-be open recreational pot shops across the country, but former dispensary workers' knowledge and passion can be seen as both an asset and a risk, hiring managers say.

Although the average Canadian consumer will likely need guidance on how to shop for pot, there are "mixed feelings" about bringing people into the legal cannabis industry who have worked in the illicit market, said Alison McMahon, chief executive of consultancy Cannabis at Work.

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Regulators have been very clear that cannabis retail consultants cannot tell customers that they will have a certain effect or medical outcome from using the plant, she added.

"When people are really passionate about the plant, that can be almost a regulatory risk because they might almost overstep their bounds in terms of what they believe and are going to say about the plant that is not allowed from a regulatory perspective," she said.

If the candidate has the interpersonal skills and self awareness to toe that fine line, however, they may be the right fit, McMahon added.

Cannabis companies have been gearing up to hire and train employees in recent months to fill roles such as budtender at recreational cannabis stores ahead of legalization on Oct. 17.

Online job postings with the words cannabis, marijuana, budtender and dispensary in their title have grown this year from two out of every 100,000 posts in February to 15 in August and 14 at the start of October, according to online job posting website Indeed.com.

The provinces with the most amount of cannabis-related retail postings have been Alberta and British Columbia, followed by New Brunswick and Ontario, but it still represents a relatively small segment of overall postings, said Indeed's economist Brendon Bernard.

"Once Ontario starts rolling out retail stores, I definitely think we can expect a rise in postings there. Other provinces as well... There is still a lot of open policy questions, so things are pretty uncertain, but I definitely think this is still a sector to watch."

While Ontario won't have any brick-and-mortar stores until next spring and British Columbia will have just one store ready for Oct. 17, other provinces such as Alberta and Newfoundland are expecting 17 and 20 locations, respectively, to be open at the outset of legalization.

Meanwhile, provinces such as Ontario have signalled that illicit dispensaries which are looking to participate in the legal framework for recreational cannabis sales must shut down their operations before applying for a licence — leaving existing staff in limbo.

Workers with a background in the grey or black market would have a fair shot at being hired, and would be considered on merit, said Natalie Wood, director of human resources for marijuana clinic operator National Access Cannabis. NAC is aiming to open 20 recreational cannabis stores by Oct. 17, contingent on licensing, and hire between a dozen to 15 individuals for each location, she said.

All employees will be subject to a criminal background check, as required under provincial legislation, but previous possession charges, for example, are not a deal-breaker, she added.

"We're all dealing with something that was a prohibited substance that now is going to be legal," she said. "So we want to be able to, as an organization make those judgment calls on the individuals that we think is best for the organization."

Candidates who have experience in retail involving unique products, such as David's Tea or Lush beauty products, may be a good fit, said McMahon.

"There are a lot of good transferable skill sets... but it all comes down to whether you are the right person to work in the cannabis industry," she said.

To help new hires who are new to cannabis, several retailers and provinces are developing their own in-house training programs or outsourcing that education to bring employees up to speed.

For example, NAC is using their own proprietary training program while Lift & Co. has developed a cannabis-retail training certification in conjunction with MADD Canada. Lift's course consists of both online and in-person training modules which walk employees through topics such as cannabis history as well as responsible selling skills.

Lift has signed contracts with the provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island as well as cannabis retailers Delta 9 and Spirit Leaf, said Nick Pateras, Lift & Co's vice-president of growth and international strategy.

"We are entering a period of launching a new category, but our consumer base is naive generally, about what to buy and how to shop... The role of the retail staff is magnified beyond what it would be even in the case of other sectors, where retail plays an important role," he said.

Nearly 400 government and private sector employees have completed Lift's retail training certification to date, Lift says.

"The average learner is starting from a relatively low point of low knowledge," said Pateras.

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