Olds College’s new cannabis production program isn’t some half-baked idea — it’s high time.
“We’ve been offering horticulture programming for over 50 years, so it makes sense for this new facet of the horticulture industry to come our way for training,” said Debbie Thompson, the college’s vice-president academic and student experience.
“It’s a new industry that’s expanding, and people see this as an opportunity to get into that field. This is their first step.”
And for many students, it was more of a leap than a step. Launched on May 1 through the college’s continuing education department, the first three-month class filled up immediately, with two more following suit nearly as fast.
“Within the first day of launching our program, the first cohort of 20 students was full. As of yesterday, we had two more full cohorts,” Thompson said on May 4.
It makes sense. With cannabis expected to become legalized for recreational use sometime this summer, the industry is set to explode, with up to 150,000 new jobs nationwide over the next few years.
“There are job opportunities out there, and a lot of people who are interested in being employed within the industry see this as an opportunity to expand their understanding of cannabis production,” said Thompson.
“If you’re an individual who has an interest in this one aspect of horticulture, this is a nice introductory opportunity for you to learn a little bit more about it, get some training and education under your belt, and be able to apply this learning to the industry.”
The five-course online program will focus on the ins and outs of cannabis production and regulation, while giving students hands-on experience with the crop during a two-week practicum.
The first two courses offer an introduction to horticulture production, crop production, and facilities, followed by two courses that are more specific to the cannabis industry, including cannabis production, regulations, and legislation. Students then apply these learnings in an actual cannabis production facility at Sundial and Terra Life Sciences, two industry partners in the program.
Training a skilled workforce for this growing industry was one of the key drivers behind the program, said Anil Jain, president and CEO of Terra Life Sciences.
“This whole cannabis sector is new, and we need to have skilled employees,” said Jain. “The industry is severely lacking in the skills we need to have.”
The need for those skills is only going to grow following legalization, he added. Aurora Cannabis, Sundial, and Terra Life Sciences have all announced Alberta expansion in the last year, and with that expansion will come plenty of career opportunities. Terra Life Sciences alone will need upwards of 150 to 200 new employees, ranging from office staff to production workers and everything in between.
“Alberta is an ideal place for cannabis cultivation, so my expectation is that we’re going to see a significant growth in the industry in Alberta compared to other provinces,” said Jain.
“We’re already starting to see some really large cultivation facilities coming up in Alberta, and that creates a huge opportunity for jobs.”
And the training that students will get through the new Olds College program will give them the skills they need for those jobs, Jain added.
“By having hands-on training during the course of their studies, students will learn a lot more and their skills will be higher when they’re done.”
A key component of that will be the regulations around cannabis production, manufacturing, and distribution in Canada. Because cannabis is legal only for medicinal purposes in Canada, the course will cover the existing regulations around cannabis production until those regulations change to permit recreational use.
“The regulations are quite strict,” said Jain. “Students need to have a pretty good understanding of the regulations and what these regulations mean in a practical sense.”
Terra Life Sciences is also a fully integrated facility, where in addition to cultivation, students will learn extraction and manufacturing to round out their education and give them a better understanding of the broader sector.
But for other students, the cannabis production program may very well be a gateway drug to other Olds College horticulture programs.
“We may find that students really enjoy the opportunity to learn about horticulture, and that might expand their interest into our horticulture program,” said Thompson.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some additional interest in horticulture from getting a taste of it from the cannabis program.”