How the fast-growing cannabis retail sector finds frontline workers

Why a Sephora beauty advisor may have exactly what it takes to be a budtender.
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· 5 min read

When it comes to job growth, the cannabis industry is, indeed, smoking:

  • The legal cannabis industry accounted for 417,493 full-time equivalent jobs in January, compared to 122,800 in 2017, according to a report by Vangst.
  • While that’s 2% lower than in 2022, it follows at least five straight years of double-digit job growth.

More than 20 states have legalized recreational consumption, and entrepreneurs are securing licenses for cannabis retail stores.

That requires hiring associates to staff the stores for an industry that in many states, including New York, didn’t exist a few years ago. And hiring budtenders—the cannabis equivalent to bartenders—can be considerably more complicated than staffing a McDonald’s.

“I know exactly what I need for a burger flipper [but] these jobs that we focus on are very different than that,” Sloane Barbour, founder and CEO of Engin Sciences Inc, an AI recruiting software company that specializes in the cannabis industry, told Retail Brew. “They require unique and novel insight. A budtender needs to know a lot of specific information about the plant, cannabinoids, terpenes, high-volume retail, point-of-sale systems, [and] compliance is a big part of their job.”

In an industry known for myriad strains of its products, Barbour and others have made it their business to help cultivate a new strain of employee: the cannabis retail worker.

Leaf executive officers: After more than a dozen years working at executive recruitment companies, first Motion Recruitment and then Hired, Inc., Barbour joined FlowerHire, an executive search firm for the cannabis industry in 2019.

FlowerHire, where Barbour started as CRO and still serves as a partner, focuses on hiring executives. While many people have experience selling weed illicitly, the illegal market is “a totally different operating model than running a large-scale corporate cannabis company,” Barbour said. “So the only people that had that experience would be coming out of agriculture, retail, hospitality, entertainment, and we were able to help people bridge that gap at a very senior level.”

What that looked like, Barbour continued, was “a very hands-on 20-person traditional recruiting and executive search firm where it’s people talking all day to all these different people and convincing them to join the industry.”

But soon after joining FlowerHire, the cannabis companies who were its customers pointed out that they needed more than just CEOs and CMOs.
“We kept hearing, ‘Hey, we need to hire 1,000 budtenders across five states. Can you help?’” Barbour recalled. “And the answer was always, ‘You know, unfortunately, we can’t.’”

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So he figured out a way.

Start your Engin: In 2020, Barbour co-founded Engin with Dr. Valerie Fraysse, a co-founder of Good & Co., and Jamie Leo, an advertising creative director and branding strategist.

Described by Barbour as “the ZipRecruiter for cannabis,” Engin, which counts FlowerHire among its investors, has more than 50 cannabis businesses as customers.

  • Engin’s job board,, draws about 70,000 visitors monthly, Barbour said.
  • More than 800 job seekers apply for jobs through the site daily, up from 200 at the end of last year.

Since it’s a fledgling industry, Barbour stressed that companies neither demand nor expect most applicants to have cannabis job experience. So the company focuses on other industries where workers’ skills are transferable.

He’s noticed a lot of successful transitions from beauty counters.

At Sephora, for instance, Barbour said customers might be shopping for just an item or two, but beauty advisors make suggestions. “‘Oh with your complexion, this would look great. Here’s what this does,’” Barbour said. “And all of a sudden you’ve got $300 of makeup. That’s kind of what a great budtender will do.”

Five-leaf binder: The Cannabis Workforce Initiative, a collaboration between the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, and the nonprofit Workforce Development Institute, is a state-funded initiative to help train prospective cannabis employees.

It offers a free 10-week, 15-hour online course that introduces students to the cannabis industry, and they earn a certificate upon completion.

One week, for example, covers “seed-to-sale compliance,” which details how, since cannabis remains illegal under federal law, it must be accounted for at every step of the growing, processing, and sales process.

Employers “are afraid that somebody’s going to have a compliance infraction, and it’s going to jeopardize their license,” David Serrano, the initiative’s project manager, told us.

The course also helps to “demystify” the industry, said Serrano, explaining that nationally, cannabis businesses have struggled to retain workers who didn’t know what the work entails.

“We hope that people are saying ‘yes’ to jobs that they would actually commit to for a long term,” Serrano said. “Not get into it, figure out, ‘Oh, this is not what I wanted to do,’ and then quit.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.