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Job seekers meet prospective employers at Vangst's job fair. The next one is January 19, 2017 at City Hall nightclub. Courtesy of Vangst

Job Growth in the Age of Legalization

How a local staffing company is trying to take marijuana hiring to unprecedented levels.

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With the marijuana industry booming in Colorado and elsewhere, the sector is squarely in its, uh, growth phase. The question for employers now becomes how best to, well, weed out the best applicants.

That’s where Karson Humiston comes in. The 24-year-old recently landed in Denver from upstate New York, where she started Vangst Talent Network, a staffing company that pairs employers with qualified employees throughout all segments of the marijuana business.

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The key word is “qualified.” Anyone who wants to take the plunge into the MJ world must start by getting a certification that says you’re allowed to work in the industry. “Some people want to get a job before they move here, but you have to get your ‘badge’ first,” Humiston says. “We’ve also seen a lot of turnover, but now that the overall stigma around marijuana is disappearing, the quality of applicants is also increasing.”

This includes a surge in executive-level jobs such as sales managers, CFOs, and COOs who honed their skills in other arenas. “The job opportunities are endless in positions you’d never think of,” Humiston says. “We’re recruiting C-level people out of fields like manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. These are real professionals with high-paying salaries.”

Humiston, who previously started a travel company while still an undergrad, saw the market gap in marijuana after attending an industry trade show. She originally named her startup Graduana and focused primarily on staffing interns and entry-level positions. But everything evolved so quickly she decided to move to Colorado in 2015 and focus on more upper-level placements.

Now Vangst has eight—soon to be 12—recruiters, including three in Los Angeles, with plans to expand to northern California and Massachusetts. “Our secret sauce is having a combination of people from other industries as well as those who’ve been in marijuana since 2009 [when Colorado’s medical marijuana business began to take off] who know exactly what the companies are looking for,” Humiston says.

Being a veteran of Colorado’s MJ industry might pay off in other ways, as companies outside the state are feverishly recruiting experienced talent. “Where else can you say you have five years of high-level growing experience?” Humiston says. “You’ve made your mistakes on Colorado’s dime, so companies elsewhere are recruiting them so they can avoid those same mistakes, and they usually pay better elsewhere because the skills these people have are really valuable.”

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Vangst is also setting up a job board where potential employees can upload their profiles and get matched with client companies. Because of the stigma still lingering around marijuana, mainstream job boards often won’t post want ads from the industry, and would-be employees might be reluctant to publicly post their resumes on cannabis-related job sites. The Vangst site will have a soft launch in January, in time for its job fair on January 19 at City Hall on Broadway (which will feature about 50 companies and some 2,000 potential employees). The site already has had about 600 people set up profiles for Vangst’s clients to peruse and pursue. “For example, if you’re interested in being a dispensary manager and have a retail background, we’ll meet to see if you have the right skills, and we’ll rep the ones who do,” Humiston says. “Companies are getting flooded with applications, but if a company is one of our clients you’ll have a better chance getting hired.”

Given that the marijuana industry created more than 18,000 new jobs in 2015, just in Colorado—one year before eight of nine cannabis-related ballot measures passed around the country on November 8—it’s easy to see why someone who’s been grinding it out in another business might want to explore the marijuana world.

But before making that leap, Humiston says, these executive-level individuals need to know that they may be required to do things—such as a pressing data-entry project—that may have been “beneath” their title at their old job. “We’ve had the most success with people who have startup experience,” she says. “If you’re coming from a Fortune 500 company you might have been pigeonholed into one role. But in this industry, it’s all hands on deck and not 9-to-5, so people with a startup background understand the bumps. We’ve placed people from more established companies who end up saying, ‘This pace is too crazy.’”

There is some uncertainty over marijuana’s future given the election of Donald Trump and his pending appointment of noted cannabis foe Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. But with 28 states now having some form of legalization and given the money and job creation involved, the future should remain bright for Vangst. “Marijuana companies started by hiring warm bodies; now they realize they’re losing time, money, and morale if they’ve brought in the wrong person,” Humiston says. “So they’re starting to add up the intangibles of that and turning to us for help. All the little steps you need to make an efficient hire, they’re now seeing the value of doing it.”

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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