Credit: Andy Colwell / for Billy Penn

On Saturday, several dozen Philadelphians who’ve each paid $250 for the privilege will spend the day in a DoubleTree conference room learning about medical marijuana.

These aren’t doctors, or growers, or dispensary owners. They’re people who hope to become part of the workforce as “budtenders.”

A budtender, for anyone not fluent in bad puns, is like a dispensary’s version of a bartender — the person who interacts with customers and hands over the goods.

The state’s first official medical marijuana dispensary opened its doors this week, ushering in a whole new industry in which being a budtender is one of the most sought-after jobs. Across the country, budtender interest has become so intense that entire companies dedicated to training have sprung up.

And now they’re descending on Pennsylvania

This weekend’s seminar at the Center City hotel is hosted by Florida-based HempStaff, which describes itself as an “industry leader in medical marijuana recruiting and job training.” Despite the session’s relatively high price tag, the event sold out shortly after being announced.

What do attendees get for their two and a half Benjamins?

The main tangible takeaway is a certificate, handed out to those who pass the 20-question, multiple-choice exam given at the end of the day’s activities. Whether the certification actually means anything is a separate question.

A HempStaff seminar in Illinois Credit: Facebook / HempStaff

A crash course on medical weed

According to HempStaff CEO James Yagielo, the certificate is only a small facet of what the course provides.

Trainers, who Yagielo said have at least five years experience in the legal cannabis industry, teach attendees about a wide range of topics, from biology to law to medicine.

They start with a primer on the plant itself, including an overview of various strains and a history of its use. Next comes an analysis of the types of products most often found in dispensaries — things like vape pens, edibles, inhalers, suppositories, patches or stamps — and what ailments these products are best used for.

“By the time we’re done,” Yagielo said, students have a handle on which kind of product would match up best with each patient “so they’re going to get the best relief possible.”

Pennsylvania, there won’t be any “flowers” sold (i.e. the kind of pot buds most people are used to seeing) because of state law. A discussion of legal intricacies, tailored to the state where the class is being held, is also part of HempStaff’s syllabus.

Since so much ground is being covered, Yagielo allowed, HempStaff seminar is basically giving students a “crash course.”

Credit: Andy Colwell / for Billy Penn

Showing good initiative

A crash course can be better than nothing.

“For someone who doesn’t know anything about the cannabis industry, it’s a good place to start,” offered dispensary owner Michael Visher.

In the nine years since Visher opened Tender Healing Care in Denver, he has never hired someone with a certificate from HempStaff — or even from the more-established Oaksterdam University.

“They’re not accredited. They don’t have a curriculum,” Visher said. “From one organization to another, there’s no standardization. So the problem is, I don’t know what the certificate entails.”

One thing the certificate does show is initiative, pointed out Russ Cersosimo, founder of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society.

“From a hiring manager standpoint,” Cersosimo said, “knowing that someone took the initiative to start looking under every rock in the industry, I think, shows something.”

Asked if he has a sense of how many HempStaff students go on to find work in the industry, Yagielo was uncertain. “We don’t really have a solid answer on that,” he hedged, “because a lot of our students take our seminar and then we don’t hear from them again.”

But apparently he does get feedback from some. “We can say we’ve heard from hundreds of people that have taken our class that are now working in the industry,” Yagielo said.

Credit: Andy Colwell for Billy Penn

The value of experience

Montgomery County resident Karen Palmer has taken the HempStaff course twice so far, and plans to go again for a third time some point this year. (All students are welcome to retake the seminar free of charge.)

Palmer hasn’t yet landed a job in the industry for her troubles, but has been pleased with her HempStaff experience nonetheless.“The class was really my guide,” she said.

HempStaff provides students with a resume template, one Yagielo said is designed to appeal to dispensary hiring managers. They’re also encouraged to email their finished resumes to HempStaff for personal critiques.

And a resume showing past work experience can be an important factor — even if you’ve never been a budtender before.

Visher, the Denver dispensary owner, suggested solid retail experience was even more valuable than general cannabis knowledge, since the latter can be picked up through reading, where the former cannot. Per Visher, what hiring managers are really looking for is customer service skills.

“At the end of the day, when you’re working behind the counter,” he said, “it’s just retail. Whether you’re selling diamonds, popcorn or pot — it doesn’t really matter.”

Plus, dispensaries are first and foremost medical clinics. “It’s medicine, “ said PA Cannabis Society’s Cersosimo. “It’s not your tye-dyed shirt-type crowd. It’s closer to a physician’s office.”

Yagielo agreed that experience in retail and nursing are a huge plus, noting that budtenders “really have to be compassionate people and understand what the [patient] is looking for … without violating the person’s privacy.”

In general, he said, “It’s a very delicate thing.”