When considering how fast the cannabis industry has grown in Illinois, D.K. Lee can’t help but think of South Korea in the 1970s.
Lee, an agronomy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has spent most of his career studying perennial grasses and other specialty feedstocks.
A little over three years ago, Lee and his colleagues in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences started to discuss how UIUC could broaden its reach into specialty crops while gauging the interest and needs of Illinois growers.
One crop that kept coming up was cannabis, a specialty crop that has some family history for Lee. Hemp and marijuana plants are both in the cannabis species.
“I remember back in 1970, around the time when the South Korean government started regulating cannabis, my grandma was producing hemp fiber,” which was used to make clothes, Lee said. “At the time, no one knew about marijuana. They had been growing hemp fiber from generation to generation.”
Looking back on it now, Lee sees similarities between the era when his grandmother cultivated hemp and current-day Illinois. In South Korea, practices were passed down through the generations, but there was no formal learning on the topic. Here, growers are just beginning to scratch the surface on cannabis production and management.
“There’s a lot of demand and interest for cannabis and hemp out there, but we realized there wasn’t necessarily any good information,” Lee said. “We as a university need to be the ones to start developing and establishing some research for the younger generation.”
As the popularity for both medical and recreational marijuana grows in Illinois, education on the manufacturing, cultivation and management of cannabis is following close behind. This fall, in addition to the University of Illinois, 11 community colleges across the state — more than ever before — will offer courses aimed at preparing students for jobs in the cannabis industry. The list of courses is increasingly sophisticated, from “cannabis and the law” at Oakton Community College to “cannabis flower production” at UIUC.
The workforce needs are immediate, as the state issues more licenses for growing and selling marijuana.
“We heard from employers. They’re looking for an educated workforce that can come in and know what they’re doing right away,” said Daniel Kalef, vice president of higher education at the California-based cannabis training platform Green Flower.
Kalef’s industry group is partnering with Moraine Valley Community College in south suburban Palos Hills this fall by offering two noncredit courses: an advanced manufacturing agent program and an advanced cultivation technician program.
“Because it’s not legal at the federal level, everything that is grown and sold in Illinois has to happen in Illinois,” Kalef said. “As the state continues to see incredible growth, you know that means there’s a lot more people that need to be growing, manufacturing and selling.”
The rise in cannabis education
In the summer of 2019, Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, making Illinois the 11th state in the country to do so at the time.
The very first college course in Illinois on cannabis quickly followed, at Oakton Community College. The college developed a program around patient care and medical cannabis, and since 2019, more than 550 students have enrolled in the school’s cannabis education programs.
The state today has 110 licensed dispensaries and, as of August, had granted 185 additional conditional licenses for opening. That means the retail side of the business will more than double — and soon.
Cannabis sales doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, reaching nearly $1.4 billion. The state has nearly doubled its tax collection, too, to $445.3 million in fiscal year 2021.
The workforce, however, hasn’t exactly kept up.
Job growth has been steady (up 33% in 2021), but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, by 2025, the legal marijuana industry will support 1.5 million to 1.75 million jobs in the U.S., a more than four-fold increase in the sector’s current employment totals.
Matt Berry, the chief of staff for the Illinois Community College Board, said more colleges have been offering credit-based programs. “These courses are a perfect example of what the bread and butter of community colleges really is, which is developing programs to meet workforce and industry demand,” Berry said.
Community college instructors have had to work closely with industry to develop curriculum so that students are trained for business needs, which can range from working the retail side to cultivating plants.
Retail-focused and medicinal health courses were the first subject matters to pop up in the classroom. That eventually gave way to the more agricultural-centric programs that are now being offered at schools like UIUC and, most recently, Moraine Valley.
Not all programs are focused solely on marijuana. At Olive-Harvey College, for example, which is part of the Chicago City Colleges, students aiming for a certificate in the applied cannabis studies program have access to a newly opened greenhouse that grows hemp. Cannabis, hemp and marijuana are all terms for plants in the Cannabaceae family. Hemp — one of the more versatile plants in the world — contains low levels of the intoxicating phytocannabinoid known as Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana has high levels of THC, while hemp has high levels of the non-intoxicating phytocannabinoid Cannabidiol (CBD).
Steve Pappageorge is the executive director of community education, workforce development and government relations at Moraine Valley. His job is to work with industry leaders to identify and implement a curriculum that matches up with available jobs.
The campus partnered with Green Flower to design noncredit courses in cultivation and manufacturing. In cultivation class, for example, one week students will learn cannabis botany and germination; the next, they’ll study the flowering and vegetative cycle of the cannabis plant.
For colleges struggling to bring in more students after COVID-19 hurt enrollment, the courses could be a fresh lure for students of all backgrounds.
“Clearly there will be individuals who are looking to satisfy their curiosity, but now by offering a manufacturing and cultivation course, we expect to see students who like to work in a lab or work in quality control on the production side,” Pappageorge said. “It’s important from the college’s perspective that we give people options.”
There’s also hope the courses will appeal to older adults looking to make a career change, Pappageorge said. “Younger people typically view the cannabis industry a lot differently than somebody who’s maybe 50 or 55 years old, and I think that that’s just the nature of the job market,” he said.
As the state attempts to expand access and grant more retail licenses, older and non-white entrepreneurs will be looking for education and training in the industry.
“It’s a very, very wide audience.”
The ‘fastest-growing job market’ in the country
Illinois’ cannabis market is still nascent, and its expansion has not always gone smoothly. The state, for example, tried to build equity into its licensing program, but when the first round of recreational license winners was announced, critics said the program fell short. Several lawsuits followed.
Education leaders, including Pappageorge at Moraine Valley, are mindful of that and know they could play a big role in leveling the playing field when it comes to equity.
“That’s really one of the key points in all of this,” Pappageorge said.
One program to watch will be “Still I Rise” at Olive-Harvey in the majority Black neighborhood of Pullman. The nine-month-long program will give participants who have been arrested for marijuana-related charges formal education and career training in cannabis studies.
Participants receive free tuition, academic support, child care assistance, transportation services and a $1,000 monthly stipend as part of the program.
Olive-Harvey started its own cannabis certification program in 2019 and, just a few weeks ago, became the first school in the state to be approved for an accredited associate’s degree in cannabis studies.
Participants in the program will be offered direct pathways into jobs as growers, lab technicians, lab directors and quality control employees in the cannabis market. That degree program will start in the spring of 2023.
“The upward mobility in this industry is unlike any industry I’ve seen,” Kalef said. “When you start an entry-level job in cannabis, we’re seeing people get into management in six months. It’s the fastest-growing job market in the country and the fact that it’s still only legal in 37 states is pretty remarkable.”
Lee is bullish on the cannabis programs at Illinois’ flagship state university as well. UIUC launched its cannabis certificate program last year and already offers a handful of classes that range from introduction to horticulture (HORT 100) all the way to cannabis flower production (CPSC 499), a new course that Lee will be teaching in the fall.
In that course, students will learn how to identify strains of cannabis and how to determine the gender of certain plants. They study which potting soils to use in indoor versus outdoor growing, how to prune and manage the plants and how to harvest the flower.
Even though Lee’s grandmother — and people before her — had been growing hemp fiber for generations, the South Korean government did not regulate hemp until the mid-1970s. In 2018, the country legalized medical marijuana.
Two years later, South Korea also made the province of Gyeongbuk a regulation-free zone for hemp. Andong, a city in Gyeongbuk that has traditionally grown hemp fabrics for thousands of years, is now the epicenter for cannabis in the country.
It was a slow burn. Some things take time.
Patrick Filbin is a freelance writer based in Chicago.