Holyoke Community College, American International College see future jobs in cannabis

HOLYOKE — Jeffrey Hayden says the clientele for Holyoke Community College’s cannabis industry training program is different than he expected.

“If you’d asked me a year or two ago, I would have probably gone with the stereotype and said we’d get young males in their 20s who think, ‘This is cool, man,’” said Hayden, the college vice president of business and community services.

“The reality, though, is that people are seeing this as an entrepreneurial and career opportunity,” he said. “We get students as young as 21 and as old at 65 or 70 expressing interest. They’re looking at this as a job or career, and at the end of the day it’s kind of like the typical workforce.”

One such individual is Damaris Aponte of Holyoke, who worked at Baystate Noble Hospital and wanted a change in her life.

“I took the cannabis culinary training program last year. I had been in the medical field for 20 years and I was looking for something different,” said Aponte, 44, who is in the process of applying for a cannabis delivery license.

The HCC course she took dealt with Massachusetts regulations and cooking skills related to marijuana edibles. Aponte received tuition help from a local nonprofit.

“We learned the basics of the commercial kitchen, and the treatment of food and edibles,” Aponte said. “Now I’m reaching out to other women to help set up a cannabis committee in Holyoke.”

“I’m Puerto Rican, a woman and from Holyoke, and this is a city that could use a boost,” she said. “Holyoke could get that boost by being a cannabis hub. I’m very involved with giving back and helping that happen.”

Holyoke Community College cannabis program

Some of the cannabidiol products in the foreground were used to make cookies during a cannabis culinary assistant training course early last spring at the HCC-MGM Culinary Arts Institute.

American International College in Springfield is also responding to the legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts, which occurred first for medical use and then, by 2016 referendum vote, for recreational adult use.

AIC offers two cannabis studies programs. The first is a three-course certificate in “micro-emerging markets” and is designed to provide individuals with an introduction to the cannabis industry.

“The impact of the multi-billion dollar cannabis industry on the global marketplace is explored through entrepreneurial, commercial, legal, and ethical lenses,” said Susanne T. Swanker, dean and professor in the AIC School of Business, Arts and Sciences.

Additionally, AIC offers a 30-credit master’s degree in cannabis science and commerce. This program provides an understanding of the basic science, business and legal issues of the cannabis industry, including chemistry, cultivation and uses of cannabis; delivery systems; and management, marketing and operational aspects. It also addresses federal and state laws and policies.

Administrators at colleges that have taken a proactive approach to cannabis feel they have a head start in an industry expected to experience dramatic growth in Massachusetts, with a commensurate increase in job opportunities.

Susanne Swanker

American International College dean and professor Susanne Swanker says the college’s cannabis studies program explores the growing industry in entrepreneurial, commercial, legal and ethical terms. (Seth Kate Photography)

“Coursework at AIC is designed to accommodate students of any academic background. The curriculum was developed and being taught by a combination of AIC faculty, consultants and professionals in the cannabis industry,” Swanker said.

Interest in the master’s program remains high, with new cohorts starting in the spring 2021 term, Swanker said.

HCC and its new community partner, Elevate Northeast, unveiled its cannabis careers training program in October.

Swanker said AIC does not have any agreements with local cannabis organizations to provide workforce training. She said the college is working with professionals in the cannabis industry, some of whom are local to this area, to build and teach the courses at both the certificate and the master’s degree levels.

HCC offers cannabis industry training in both credit and noncredit programs, where students pursue the goal of moving directly into the employment sector rather than pursuing a degree.

Hayden said COVID-19 has created a focus on the health care aspect of cannabis, though hospitality purposes are also covered at HCC. The course has been converted to fit the distance learning curriculum made necessary by the pandemic.

Four cannabis industry career tracks are available at Holyoke Community College. They are cultivation assistant, extraction technician, patient services associate and culinary assistant.

Cultivation assistants handle daily care of the crops from seed to harvest. They may be involved in cracking seeds, soil mixing, potting, defoliation, watering, pest control and trimming.

Extraction technicians work in labs and assist production managers in extraction, purging, oil manipulation, winterization, distillation, solvent recovery and quality control.

Patient service associates work behind the counters at cannabis dispensaries, answering technical questions and providing information to registered cannabis patients, caregivers and recreational customers.

Culinary assistants are responsible for preparing cannabis products using a variety of cooking, baking and infusion techniques.

Hayden said the HCC training program is attracting serious individuals because it’s all business.

“We’ve attracted people with a variety of skill sets including accounting, management, or those having culinary skills to connect with the cannabis industry,” he said. “Early on, we looked at it as a workforce issue, and that is how we approach it now.”

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