If you want to see what a thriving, multistate cannabis operator looks like, Illinois-based Cresco Labs is proving to be a fantastic example.
When Scott Wells joined Cresco Labs as Executive Vice President of Talent Acquisition 18 months ago, he brought more than 25 years of executive search and HR experience with him. When he started, the company had about 300 employees. Today, that number has grown to approximately 1,700.
Amidst such rapid expansion, Wells and his team of six recruiters have had to stay sharp, and applicants have had to learn how to stand out among all the competition.
How much competition? In the past 13 months, more than 165,000 applicants have gone through the tracker Wells introduced to help better streamline their hiring process.
“When you get 165,000 applicants in 13 months, one of the challenges is making sure we find the best talent within that pool itself while managing with limited resources,” Wells explains.
“Just the sheer volume of what I call walk-up business that we get, without even talking about going out and trying to identify appropriate candidates through active searching – that’s a big challenge for us. And it’s been an invigorating experience every step of the way.”
As the cannabis industry continues to grow – even during the COVID-19 pandemic – more professionals are eyeing the space and companies like Cresco with increasing interest.
Retail is a great example, Wells notes. “Retail in the United States has struggled for many years, and especially recently, a lot of folks in retail want to work in cannabis. There are some apples-to-apples comparisons in that retail component, so it’s about weeding through that and finding the best, most talented folks who are leaders in the retail space.”
Wells also sees a lot of professionals coming in from outside areas like consumer packaging, big pharma, and other biotech industries, as well as people who are already working in cannabis and interested in Cresco because of what they read about it in the press.
“It’s really about making sure that we are looking at the broadest base of potential applicants that we can,” Wells says.
The focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is one of the top values Wells and his team employ throughout the talent search process.
With the cannabis industry in particular, this issue is all the more of a concern due to the war on drugs’ disproportionate impact on people of color.
“We have to make sure we are creating opportunities for folks who come from or live in some of the most heavily impacted areas and neighborhoods around the country, especially in big cities,” Wells emphasizes.
“This is about looking at people who have had drug charges and arrests at some point in their lives, and trying to find space and create opportunities to give those folks a second chance where they wouldn’t have that opportunity in many other industries.”
Cresco Labs also practices these values in its Social Equity & Education Development (SEED) program, a comprehensive initiative designed to provide tangible pathways into the cannabis industry for communities impacted on the war on drugs through partnerships, sponsorships and educational programming and a commitment to restorative justice. make an impact and provide opportunities in cannabis through several types of collaboration.
The culture fit is another vital process in Cresco Labs’ talent search strategy, Wells says.
“From a culture perspective, we certainly spend a significant amount of time ensuring that the people we bring on board have a similar or the same mindset as we do,” he notes.
“That includes a focus of course again on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is a must and such a big part of the screening process when we hire, especially leaders or managers who are going to continue to grow different parts of our organization, that they are aligned with us and in lockstep with us in that regard, regardless of what industry they come from.”
The other trait Cresco looks for during the hiring process is problem-solving. “If you’re going to be a leader in cannabis, coupling that with the startup aspect and building an industry, you have to be a problem-solver,” Wells advises.
“Problem identifiers without the ability to solve problems don’t really work in this space. It’s number one on my whiteboard; it’s the first thing I look for when I talk to leaders and potential managers is that you have the ability and experience to solve problems and be able to make decisions in short order, and if you can’t you’re probably not going to work in the cannabis space.”
One of the main reasons why the ability to problem solve in cannabis is so important revolves around the gauntlet of regulations specific to the industry.
“The regulatory piece of what we do is so significant, and things change seemingly on a day-to-day basis, that you have to be able to pivot, and you have to be flexible, and you have to really have the intestinal fortitude, if you will, to be able to make decisions – sometimes without as much data as you might have coming from another industry that’s been around for a longer period of time.”
The other culture component, Wells reveals, is ensuring that new hires either have a relationship – or an interest in developing a relationship – with cannabis, be it medical or adult use. “There has to be some type of passion for the product,” he says.
This potential culture fit is assessed during extensive interviewing, all the way to CEO Charlie Bachtell helping make decisions on senior-level hires.
One of the other keys to Cresco Labs’ ability to scale successfully and maximize employee retention is no doubt its attitude toward onboarding and training new hires.
Cresco has different training structures for each part of the operation, ranging from facility employees, retail employees, to corporate employees, Wells explains.
“In a facility, it’s more of an on-the-job training, where we attach somebody to a buddy or a mentor, and they work side-by-side with those folks, if they’re in packaging, manufacturing, or cultivation,” Wells says. “The training and onboarding would be different for each of those areas, but it would be a more on-the-job type of training situation.”
On the retail side, meanwhile, Cresco runs its people through a more defined, traditional, classroom-like setting – now done virtually due to the pandemic. “This is a more formal training where they can really learn the different aspects of the product, the medical aspects, the adult-use aspects, what a product means or what it doesn’t mean, or what problem it might help -- such as with an ailment like anxiety or a sleep disorder. The training here has to be a bit more structured.”
Training for corporate hires really depends on the job, Wells adds. “When we hire somebody for an accounting position, they’re not going to need quite as much background. And when I hire a new recruiter for example, those people will need additional training because they might be hiring or recruiting for cultivation folks, and they’ll need to know the terminology within the cultivation world, for example. Like what types of lighting we use and what types of soil we use, and how we don’t work with outside chemicals and pesticides – we want to make sure folks have the right information coming in.”
Because cannabis industry hiring has become so competitive, Wells encourages applicants to be creative and find ways to stand out.
“Some of the folks who do the best job of that are people who don’t rely on the traditional method of ‘I’m going to apply for a job and wait for somebody to call me,’” Wells notes.
“People these days are getting creative. I’m getting resumes and cover letters in the mail again, which hasn’t happened to me in years. And I appreciate that effort. When I get an envelope where somebody has taken the time to write me a note and put a stamp on it, and send it to my office, and it lands on my desk – those people stand out because I don’t get a lot of them.”
Wells also notices when people reach out to him via LinkedIn or in the past approached him at events. “I would have people come up and talk to me all the time, and those people stand out,” he says. “Have a resume ready, have a story ready, and be able to talk about why you’re so interested in the space. Don’t leave out what it is that you do and what makes you good at your job.”
A lot of that may sound old school, Wells says, but it’s working for people when they can find a way to stand out. “When people make an impression on me and their name pops up for a potential opportunity, I say hey I remember that person, they were extremely professional, they approached the right way, they had a story to tell, and they stood out to me so let’s make sure we give that person an interview.”