Manufacturing News / Workforce Development / Changing Workforce

Marijuana legalization: What does it mean for the manufacturing workforce?

What's legal isn't necessarily what employers are going to permit

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

On Friday, Illinois' state legislature voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill, and if and when he does, Illinois will become the 11th U.S. state to legalize recreational marijuana. scalesofjustice

Under the approved measure, adults 21 and older could legally possess up to 30 grams of marijuana. 

Illinois is poised to follow other states with a rich (and revitalizing) manufacturing tradition—such as Michigan, Washington, and Massachusetts—in permitting recreational marijuana use. But what are the implications of legalization for the manufacturing industry? In particular, what are the implications for the many manufacturers nationwide facing an urgent need for skilled labor and prospective candidates seeking a job in manufacturing?

In 2017, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported that in a survey of Indiana manufacturers, 68% had said that illegal drug use was a major or limited problem in hiring and employment. And employers in states where marijuana is legal or where there's a strong legalization push are facing mounting headaches, Bloomberg Law reported Friday.

Last year, I had the chance to talk to Guy Loudon, president of Jane Addams Resource Corp., a Chicago-based not-for-profit that provides manufacturing skills training for young people and others seeking work in the field, as well as skills development for those already employed in industry. In a wide-ranging interview, Loudon discussed how advanced automation is changing manufacturing's workforce needs and how workers should prioritize continually developing their skills.

But part of our conversation—not previously published—also addressed the issue of drug use in the workforce. Here, Loudon's perspective from that portion of the interview:

PS: In Plant Services' 2018 workforce survey, we asked readers to rate their top workforce challenges. The issue of drug use wasn't among respondents' top concerns, but we continue to see stories about how drug use is making an already difficult hiring and retention landscape for U.S. manufacturers even tougher. What's your perspective?

GL: It really is a huge problem. JARC has our place in Chicago and we launched an affiliate in Baltimore in 2015. Drug issues surface in both places. In Baltimore in particular, though, we've been really struck by how ingrained and how hardcore drug use has been among young people. And I'm not talking about hard drugs, either; I'm just talking about pot.

In some cases it's kind of a generational thing—a lot of young people, it's just accepted, "Well, this is just what we do." I think with a program like that, what we've had to do is kind of calibrate, get people applying to the program, say, "Look, our expectation if you're going to be in the program is you can't do it." Stop doing that, and come back and see us when you can pass a drug test. Because if you can't pass a drug test for us, you won't pass a drug test for the employer, and we'll just be wasting each other's time. So just being patient about it, not recoiling in horror. Kind of having an honest conversation with a 20-year-old and saying, so, this thing that you and your friends do, you just can't do it if you want to be in the manufacturing sector.

With the harder drugs, I don't know what the answer is. I have seen some devastating stories that are just real depressing; you see people go a long walk to turning their life around, and the meth or whatever it is kicks back in and takes them back, and it's painful because you realize that for people who have had issues around the harder drugs, that's just something they're going to be contending with their whole lives, and I don't really have any answers around that. We probably all need to be thinking about that.

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