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Learning to sell cannabis: College program prepares students for new careers in growing field

When the pandemic struck last March, Donna Collins, 60, of Evergreen Park, lost her job as a server at a steakhouse in Chicago Ridge. Not ready to retire, she began considering other career options.

Collins wanted employment that would allow for plenty of interaction and customer service. Last summer, she found just what she was looking for in the cannabis retail specialist certificate program listed in Moraine Valley Community College’s course catalog.

“I’m all about this, and thought to myself, ‘Sign me up! Sign me up!’” she said.

Moraine Valley’s cannabis retail specialist program was recently established to prepare students to work in Illinois’ burgeoning cannabis industry as retail specialists, “budtenders,” store managers, operations associates, operations leads, dispensary managers and retail inventory managers.

The program started last fall, and Collins was among the first to enroll. So far, 120 students have taken or signed up for the introductory cannabis course.

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Collins is convinced of marijuana’s many benefits.

“I’ve always had a passion for getting it legalized both for recreational and medical use,” she said. She also has a family member with multiple sclerosis who recently obtained a medical marijuana card.

Growing demand for qualified workers prompted Moraine Valley to establish the program.

“There are lots of jobs in this industry,” said Diana Medina, program coordinator at Moraine Valley. “And it’s not all just in marketing and retail.” Support services to the industry will be key as well, she said, and those jobs involve computer science, health care, human resources, accounting and more.

For keeping an eye on job growth, Medina looks to Leafly.com, a cannabis industry analyst. That website recorded more than 8,000 cannabis-related jobs in Illinois in 2020, she said, adding that already for 2021, the number posted on the website has more than doubled. The 2021 Leafly Jobs Report found 321,000 full-time equivalent jobs supported by legal cannabis nationwide as of January.

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To gear up for the retail specialist program, Moraine Valley established a cannabis industry advisory board that meets regularly with Moraine Valley faculty and program administrators.

Paul Chialdikas, vice president of Bedford Grow, presents an $85,000 check to Sylvia M. Jenkins, president of Moraine Valley Community College, center, and Kristy McGreal, executive director of the Moraine Valley Foundation. The donation supports scholarships for students enrolling in the college’s new cannabis retail specialist program (MVCC photo)

The group represents growers, distributors, licensing and staffing firms, as well as organizations pushing for equitable and fair competition within the industry. Members include: Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, Cannabis Equity, Chicago NORML, Cresco Labs, Illinois Equity Staff, Origo Labs, and Supercritical, LLC.

Moraine Valley also recently received an $85,000 donation from Bedford Grow, a developer and cultivator of cannabis products in Illinois.

Bedford Grow’s Lou Dineff Memorial Scholarship fund will support five annual $1,000 scholarships for students enrolled in the cannabis retail specialist program. The scholarship honors the late Lou Dineff, who worked with state legislators to promote the passage of the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act of 2013.

Like Moraine Valley administrators, Paul Chialdikas, vice president of Bedford Grow, believes the cannabis industry will provide numerous employment opportunities. He predicts it will represent a $3 billion industry in Illinois by 2023.

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