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 colleagues in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences started to discuss how the university could broaden its reach into specialty crops while gauging the interest and needs of Illinois growers.
One crop that kept coming up was cannabis — which includes hemp and marijuana — that has some family history for Lee.
“I remember back in 1970, around the time when the South Korean government started regulating cannabis, my grandma was producing hemp fiber,” used to make clothes, Lee said. “At the time, no one knew about marijuana. They had been growing hemp fiber from generation to generation.”
Lee sees similarities between the era when his grandmother cultivated hemp and current-day Illinois. In South Korea, practices were passed through generations, with no formal learning.
“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 of medical and recreational marijuana grows in Illinois, education on the manufacturing, cultivation and management of cannabis is following. This fall, in addition to the University of Illinois, 11 community colleges statewide — more than ever — are offering courses to prepare students for jobs in the cannabis industry. Courses cover such topics as “Cannabis and the law” at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and “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 working with Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills this fall, 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.”
In the summer of 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, making Illinois the 11th state in the country to do so at the time.
The first college course in Illinois on cannabis quickly followed, at Oakton Community College, which developed a program around patient care and medical cannabis. Since 2019, more than 550 students have enrolled in the school’s cannabis education programs.
The state now has 110 licensed cannabis dispensaries and, as of August, had granted 185 more conditional licenses. That means the number of stores on the retail side of the business will more than double.
Cannabis sales doubled in 2021 in Illinois over 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 hasn’t exactly kept up, though. Job growth has been steady — up 33% in 2021 — but the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, by 2025, the legal marijuana industry will support 1.5 million to 1.75 million jobs in the United States, a more than fourfold increase.
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 the industry to develop curriculum so 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 subjects to turn up in the classroom. That led to the more agricultural-centric programs now being offered at schools like UIUC and, recently, Moraine Valley.
Not all programs are focused solely on marijuana. At Olive-Harvey College, which is part of the Chicago City Colleges, students aiming for a certificate in the applied cannabis studies program have access to a new greenhouse where hemp is grown.
Cannabis, hemp and marijuana are all terms for plants in the Cannabaceae family. Hemp contains low levels of the intoxicating phytocannabinoid known as Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Marijuana has high levels of THC, while hemp has high levels of the non-intoxicating phytocannabinoid cannabidiol or 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 fits with available jobs.
The campus partnered with Green Flower to design noncredit courses in cultivation and manufacturing. In a cultivation class, 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 lure for students.
“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 state officials work to expand access and grant more retail licenses, older and non-white entrepreneurs will be looking for education and training in the industry, Pappageorge said: “It’s a very, very wide audience.”
Illinois’ legal cannabis market is still young. Its growth hasn’t 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 say they are mindful of that and know they could play a big role in leveling the playing field regarding equity.
“That’s really one of the key points in all of this,” Pappageorge said.
One program that aims to do that is called “Still I Rise” at Olive-Harvey in Pullman, a majority-Black neighborhood. The nine-month program offers participants who have been arrested on marijuana charges education and career training in cannabis studies. Participants get free tuition, academic support, child care assistance, transportation services and a $1,000 monthly stipend.
Olive-Harvey started its own cannabis certification program in 2019 and, 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 degree program, which will start in the spring of 2023, will be offered a direct path to jobs as growers, lab technicians, lab directors and quality control employees in the cannabis market.
“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 to cannabis flower production, a new course Lee will be teaching.
In that course, students will learn how to identify strains of cannabis and how to determine the gender of certain plants. They’ll study which potting soils to use in indoor versus outdoor growing, how to prune and manage the plants and how to harvest the flower.
Though Lee’s grandmother — and many 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.