Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
California Journal

California cannabis companies are hiring. Interest is high at this job fair.

There were firm handshakes.

Intense eye contact.

And the sincere repetition of first names.

Over the weekend, in a bare-walled art gallery on Highland Avenue, well-scrubbed job seekers came, resumes in hand, to connect with prospective employers.

But this was a job fair with a twist: All the employers are in the cannabis business. And almost without exception, their companies are growing explosively.

“Sales-wise, we are doubling every year,” said Leo Dai, 33, who owns Growers Choice, an indoor light company in the City of Industry. Dai had come to recruit for sales and customer service jobs. Knowledge of horticultural lighting fixtures, while helpful, was not a must.

“Our product sells itself,” he said. “Our customers are educated. They know what they want.”

Nearly 900 people signed up for the free fair on Eventbrite; about 200 showed up to chat with a dozen or so employers, who had paid less than $400 to attend. Employers included cannabis cultivators, edibles manufacturers, dispensaries and a cannabis trade magazine.

“This is not a revenue generator for us,” said Michael Ray of San Francisco-based Bloom Farms, the job fair sponsor. “It’s more of a community service. And the truth is, by organizing it, we get first crack at the best candidates.”

So far, Ray has organized seven or eight job fairs. Bigger, he has learned, is not better. One fair in Oakland drew 2,000 job seekers, far too chaotic. “You can’t really get to know someone in two minutes if you have a line behind you that’s 20 people long.”

Now, he brings in fewer employers and caps attendance. Over time, hundreds of people have found work.

“Everything is coming out of the shadows in the cannabis space,” Ray said. “And just like any other industry, we need an organized system to bring qualified job seekers together with top level brands.”

Last year, the cannabis website, Leafly, estimated that the legal cannabis industry employs about 122,000 people full-time. A third of the jobs are based in California. Now that the state’s voters have approved recreational marijuana, that number is, of course, expected to skyrocket. Arcview Market Research estimates the legal cannabis industry in the U.S. at about $6.8 billion in 2016. It is expected to more than triple by 2020.

I told Ray I was surprised not to smell even a whiff of cannabis anywhere.

“Well, we urge people to leave it at home for this kind of event,” he said. “We are all very cannabis friendly, but there is a time and a place for it.”

::

When I approached Gay Gelman, she was deep in conversation with Emmanuel Madrigal, a first-year student at Ventura College who is interested in brand marketing. From the look on his face, it seemed Gelman was giving him bad news.

“She was being realistic,” Madrigal told me a few minutes later. “I acknowledge her skepticism, but that’s because I am young. I’m just 18. I legally couldn’t even get into the business before.”

Gelman does not need branding help. She is already working with an acclaimed Chicago company, the Adrienne Weiss Corp., which has created logos for Baskin Robbins, DiGiorno pizza and a host of other famous brands.

What she needs is a few good sales reps for her new company, Upside Edibles, which makes high-quality cannabis-infused chocolate-covered fruit. Gelman, 73, owns an event-marketing company in Illinois, and was inspired to start her L.A.-based edibles business by her two sisters, who were helped enormously by medical cannabis during bouts with cancer.

She anticipates her sales reps will be able to earn six figures “easily.”

“I have found many great people here today,” she said. “And some who are clueless. But mostly, I am blown away by the caliber of the people. It’s amazing to me how many just can’t stand their jobs and want to get out of them, and they are passionate about cannabis.”

Kaiya Bercow, 27, an indoor grower in Santa Cruz whose company, Utopia Farms, sells flowers, extracts and edibles to dispensaries, was looking for a Southern California account manager. “We’ve been hiring based on world of mouth,” said Bercow, who has 20 employees. “We’re here to make better use of our resources.”

Across the way, at a table for the West Los Angeles dispensary BSE, its 41-year-old owner Zahur Lalji was telling a young man, “Everyone starts at the bottom, and you work your way up as fast as you can.” The young man did not want to give his name; he is a bank branch manager and wasn’t keen on exposing himself to his employer.

As it happens, Lalji spent 20 years in banking before leaping into cannabis. “It was nice to see someone coming from the banking industry,” he said, “but what bothered me is he didn’t know enough about this industry. When I left banking, I spent nine months doing my homework. Most people don’t take the time to do that, because they still think this is a very lax industry. Which most dispensaries still are: They want a hot girl as a budtender. That’s their criteria. I want the smartest guy.”

He needs four new employees. On Tuesday afternoon he told me he’d already scheduled six interviews and was looking forward to more. He makes new employees volunteer for 40 hours before deciding whether they fit in, he told me. That sounded kind of funky to me, but he said, “I do compensate them.” I did not ask how.

Over at the table for MG, a trade magazine that is distributed to dispensaries, Stephanie Smith made some notes on a resume. The publication is looking for advertising salespeople, and she’d just spoken with a 40-something-year-old man, who looked into her eyes as he spoke, and grasped her hand.

“I don’t know if he’d be good for sales,” she said. “His handshake was so hard that it hurt my hand. You need to be able to read the person you’re dealing with.”

“So what did you write down?” I asked.

She held up the resume: “Ouch.”

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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