(This is the fourth part of a weeklong series from Hemp Industry Daily examining hemp industry salaries, hiring and recruiting trends. Part One looked at how hemp salaries have changed since federal legalization. Part Two compared hemp salaries and tobacco-industry salaries. Part Three compared hemp salaires with those in traditional commodity agriculture. Coming tomorrow, a look at future labor trends in the hemp industry.)
Hemp salaries have risen across the supply chain since the crop won federal acceptance in 2018. The illicit market is a thing of the past, and hemp entrepreneurs now compete against multinational agricultural conglomerates to attract talent on and off the farm, from cultivation experts to skilled processors and retailers.
The tight labor market comes with little historic data to guide entrepreneurs looking to set compensation and benefit packages in order to best recruit and retain talent while keeping expenses in check in a young, volatile industry.
Hemp Industry Daily interviewed industry leaders about how they navigate labor uncertainty. Here, some of their best tips for staying competitive:
How do you find the right candidates when there’s a sea of interested prospects but few with experience in such a young industry?
Leslie Hoffman, founder, Asheville (N.C.) Hemp Project: Mostly we look for the right people based on personality traits and the ability and desire to perform.
The local tobacco industry has pretty much shuttered in the last decade, and that means there have been few jobs in the traditional ag sector which used to provide seasonal work in this area.
Our team includes people who have previously worked in areas like academia, restaurants, warehousing and wilderness education.
Angela Dawson, founder, 40 Acre Cooperative: I use a combination of word of mouth and social-media marketing. Relationships are really important in this industry. If you’re coming from a company that’s doing well and you have strong relationships there, that’s going to mean a lot to me.
Chad Rosen, CEO, Victory Hemp Foods: Attracting a talented team isn’t completely different than attracting customers or investors. As we document our story and experiences couched alongside of our mission, the world gets a really good idea of how they might want to fit into our story.
So when it comes time to hire for a position, it becomes easier for us to find the right candidates who are oriented towards our mission. Finding candidates with the right set of skills to do the job is fairly straightforward; finding someone with cultural fit who will be transformative to the organization is where the magic happens. Every new hire is an opportunity to bring magic on board.
How do you retain talent?
Doug Watson, head of sales, EcoGen Laboratories: EcoGen’s culture is one of a Darwinian approach applied to a lot of our practices and even to our talent. We set the foundation and the platform for our people to thrive within EcoGen’s environment, and those that thrive will be able to earn tremendous success at EcoGen Labs.
So, our employees and our talent work incredibly hard, they have a great deal of autonomy and the opportunity to thrive within EcoGen’s culture. Additionally, because so much of our talent is homegrown, EcoGen is a big family and people are supportive of each other. It is a culture of hardworking people helping themselves to succeed, helping their coworkers to succeed and helping the company to succeed.
Rosen: Make everyone an owner, and try to pay on the high end of the market. We’re in agriculture – it’s an old industry that’s been around for a while and will be around long after we retire. We’re looking for people who take a long view, but also have the urgency of working in a startup, who share our passion for building an organization with a strong foundation that is built to last. If we find the right people from the beginning and we succeed as a team and everyone has a stake in the success of the organization, then we’re giving ourselves the best chance we can to retain a team over the long term.
Which industries do you look to when seeking to fill roles?
Dawson: I look for generalists who can adapt to other industries. I have people from finance and banking, from universities, a wide variety.
Watson: We have several business verticals that require different roles. We have a large greenhouse and farming business, so we hire local generational farmers. We have a fabrication business, so we hire master fabricators and steelworkers. For our laboratories, we hire from the oil and gas industries, and we have lifetime chemists and other scientists.
Rosen: We contract farmers to grow hemp as a row crop and then receive combine run hemp grain at our facility in Carrollton, Kentucky, in hopper bottom trucks. From there we convert that commodity into ingredients for food in the form of protein and oil, so we are firmly looking for folks that have experience in agriculture and food ingredient manufacturing.
How do you set compensation?
Dawson: I offer pay rates that are set based on whether the position is revenue- or asset-generating.
Waldstein: Market rates, experience, geographic availability are all taken into account when determining compensation.
Rosen: While many people are drawn to the industry by the hope that it can provide meaningful change for the climate or inhabitants of Earth, the same rules of engagement and governance apply – recruiting and retention are going to follow similar paths. If you have a hemp food brand and you want to sell it to a major retailer, you’ll want to make sure you hire someone with experience selling to said retailers, and likely, that hire will have a compensation plan and benefit package in mind.
What is the role of stock options and benefits when determining compensation?
Dawson: I offer a percentage share – that’s like a stock option in a co-op – based on the person’s role plus performance. I feel like (stock options or shares) are a requirement to get what you’re looking for.
Waldstein: The most productive work environments have fairly compensated employees. These companies also create a positive workplace and support a good work-life balance. Quality of life offerings such as flexible working schedule and availability to attend family events create an advantageous working environment.
Rosen: For stock options to have any value, it’s important that the recipient understand their value, and maybe more important, that they can participate in the value of those options in a meaningful way. With a young company, that value is very speculative, and so to dole out stock options for a member of the team that would more appreciate a quarterly bonus is something that we like to evaluate with each employee individually. They call it a benefit package for a reason, and stock options are one of the retention/recruitment benefits in that package. But understanding what is most valuable to your team member is an important part of remaining aligned with your team.
Which industries do you model yourself after when hiring and deciding pay?
Waldstein: The marijuana and hemp industries can look to the dietary supplement world for inspiration and talent. Dietary supplement companies have experience with changing FDA regulations and understand how to grow rapidly and efficiently while maintaining high quality standards. Dietary supplement employees tend to have the flexibility required in the marijuana and hemp industries and are accustomed to fair pay.
Have you ever had to poach talent?
Waldstein: I have not poached talent, but there is nothing wrong with using the company network to broadcast job openings. If you build a good workplace with engaged teammates, are making great products, and have the regulatory and business foresight to succeed, then talent will come to you!
Dawson: No, but I’ve actually been on the other side. I had a competitor send someone to apply, just to gain intelligence about my own company. I found out through social media what was going on. For me it was a reminder that validating people as thoroughly as you can is really important.
Do you incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) in your operations? How? Even if not, what role do you see AI playing in your business in the future?
Rosen: We are employing data collection devices at our trial plots this year to keep care of the weather data, which will give us insight into the environmental conditions that our stands were exposed to, including temperature, water usage and soil conditions. This will help us to better understand the relationship between genetic strains, traits and environmental conditions.
Watson: There is some predictive modeling and automation that we use in a limited capacity in some of our business operations such as finance, sales, and marketing.
As with any business, the more prediction and algorithms based on consumers’ wants and needs could be optimized using AI and will be optimized using AI in the future.
One workforce option available to the hemp industry, but not the marijuana industry, is the ability to seek immigrant guest workers. Do you use guest workers?
Rosen: Tractors and combines are the tools of broad acreage row crops, as opposed to backs and hands, so this isn’t much of an issue for the style of agriculture production protocols that our farmers use.
Watson: We have not sought immigrant workers but one of our verticals is farming so, like other agriculture industries, there may be potential for immigrant workers in the future.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.