Do You Need A Degree To Work In Marijuana?

When Sierra McDonald decided to pursue horticulture at the University of Georgia, her friends joked she was studying to grow weed. Turns out they were unexpectedly right. Shortly after McDonald graduated, she headed to Arizona and a job with The Giving Tree Wellness Center, where today she earns a legitimate living growing cannabis.

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“I think [cannabis] companies are starting to realize, 'Okay, we need somebody [who is] more than just a closet grower who used to do this twenty years ago,” explained McDonald of why she sees employers like hers seeking out STEM degree holders.  Her colleague Kati Lindholm agrees. She earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Central Florida University and a master’s in plant production science from the University of Helsinki.
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Plant scientist Kati Lindholm at work inside The Giving Tree Wellness Center

“We need someone who can understand scientific reasoning and how a plant actually works and how to control it in a different environment,” Macdonald emphasized on a routine day as they closely tracked the temperature and soil moisture in the maze of pungent grow rooms inside The Giving Tree’s cultivation center in North Phoenix.
Their boss, Lilach Mazor Power, CEO and cofounder of The Giving Tree says she realized early on that as the industry has emerged from the shadows into a legal, highly regulated market, she needed to find skilled employees to build her business. The Giving Tree, which opened in 2013, grows medical grade cannabis, producing a range of pot products made from cannabis extracts like oils, lotions and even THC infused "breath strips," which are sold in its four Arizona dispensaries to patients struggling with ailments such as cancer, Parkinson's disease, PTSD and epilepsy.
Power sees hiring university graduates, especially those with scientific degrees, as the logical next step in the rapidly professionalizing world of weed.
“For us, it is really [about] trying to change the industry, trying to change the stigma [by] bringing in qualified people,” underscored Power, who also employs two highly trained chemists. More than half of her 56 staffers have college diplomas and several hold master’s degrees.
“For cultivation, I look for students with a degree related to agriculture. Not many universities let us post for their students so we post on farm job sites. For extraction, I will look for someone with a chemistry or biology degree and background. So we post on LinkedIn and university sites. For inventory, I look for MBA and supply management degrees and so on,” Power says, adding she is currently looking for a business school grad to step into the role of Chief Financial Officer.
And she is far from the only executive in the space looking for new hires with advanced science and business degrees. As the legal marijuana industry matures across in 30 states in the U.S., there is growing demand for these skills. Last fall, Northern Michigan University became the first accredited undergraduate program to offer a four year degree in Medicinal Plant Chemistry which combines the science and business of medical marijuana.  More and more, cannabis companies are seeking the best talent from top schools according to the cannabis recruiting firm, Vangst.