Washington Wineries Address Skills Shortage

Study projects need for 4,774 new positions by 2018 in wineries and vineyards

by Peter Mitham
Washington wine employment
A study from Agri-Business Consultants indicated the Washington wine industry would gain 6,463 positions between 2013 and 2018.
Prosser, Wash.—With a record harvest of 230,000 tons starting to hit Washington crush pads, juicing up production across the state, the state’s wine industry is facing mixed news on the employment front.

On one hand, demand for skilled workers means new graduates holding degrees, diplomas and certificates in viticulture and enology are almost sure to find work.

On the other, a recent study by Agri-Business Consultants LLC of Prosser indicates the industry needs to take dramatic action if it aims to attract enough people to meet projected job openings.

The study projects total direct employment in the industry to hit 20,583 full-time equivalent positions (FTEs) in 2018, up from an estimate of 15,809 in 2013.

The projected gain of 4,774 positions reflects the industry’s changed labor outlook since the last study in 2008 (see “Washington Grapples with Labor Supply”). 

    Learning curve

  • Washington State has made steady progress in training skilled workers for the industry. The previous study advised the consortium to:

    • Coordinate education and training programs, and track enrolments and completions: These are being tracked at each institution, and information is made available to consortium members.

    • Develop career pathway maps, establishing industry-wide agreement on job titles, skill requirements, credentials and career ladders: transfer agreements have been established between institutions, and the consortium is drafting skill requirements by job title.

    • Carry out a Washington wine industry salary survey: The industry draws on information Wine Business Monthly gathers for its annual salary survey.

    • Identify short-term training needs, select providers, and help arrange and promote training sessions: these initiatives occur on an as-needed basis.

    • Study the feasibility of a four-year apprenticeship program combining both studies and work: The industry deemed this option not worth pursuing at this time.

    • Develop an industry-wide plan for meeting demand for unskilled/semi-skilled workers: Instructors from the Wenatchee College Latino Agriculture Education Program train viticulture workers at Yakima Valley Community College’s Grandview campus each winter in topics ranging from canopy management and plant science to farm management, mathematics and English. 
While it viewed the industry’s growth as slowing, the 2008 study estimated that the industry employed a total of 14,000 people and would add 1,080 to 1,791 workers at wineries and vineyards through 2013.

The new projections indicate a more bullish outlook, with an overall net gain in employment at state wineries and vineyards of up to 6,463 FTEs between 2013 and 2018. That outstrips growth in employment for the sector as a whole, and works out to a requirement for between 1,219 and 3,600 FTEs at the state’s wineries, and 969 to 2,863 in the state’s vineyards. And that’s just the net demand—it doesn’t include workers required to replace those leaving the sector due to age or other circumstances.

“The highest level of need is for those below an associate’s (degree) level, and they already are having difficulties meeting labor needs at existing production. So if it continues to grow, they’re really going to struggle,” said Trent Ball, a partner at Agri-Business Consultants and chair of the agriculture program at Yakima Valley Community College

California and Oregon are facing similar pressures, and the outlook for Washington was discussed Aug. 22 by members of an industry consortium revived on the recommendation of the 2008 employment study to address the demand for skilled labor.

Consortium members include colleges as well as the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers and the Washington State Wine Commission

We “confirmed that there is ample room for most of the educational institutions to increase the enrolment and ultimately the number of graduates to attempt to meet the expected employment growth,” Ball told Wines & Vines following the consortium’s meeting.

Indeed, the study suggests that there’s good news in the state’s progress towards providing the industry with the skilled workers it needs.
Approximately 473 positions (or about 7.3% of the anticipated employment needs over the next five years) will require some kind of post-secondary training—either a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, or a certificate from Washington State University (WSU). 

The industry graduated approximately 55 degree recipients in the past year. An additional 60 students complete WSU’s distance learning certificate program each year; they often pursue a certificate to round out degrees and experience in other areas. Six years ago, just 30 students graduated with a degree.

“Generally, we are in pretty good shape,” said Doug Gore, senior vice president of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, when asked about the challenges of finding workers.

Similarly, Corey Braunel, co-owner of Dusted Valley Vintners and president of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, echoed the study’s findings in noting that securing workers for harvest is the greater challenge.

“We have not experienced problems this year personally. However, I have heard that finding seasonal crush crews has been more difficult than other years,” he told Wines & Vines.

Indeed, opportunities in the sector seem to be drawing strong interest. The past six years have seen steady demand for viticulture and enology classes despite declining college enrolment nationwide, and the trend seems to be continuing as classes prepare to resume this fall.

In addition, transfer agreements between WSU and the community colleges have opened doors for students who are keen to upgrade skills beyond an associate’s degree in applied science (AAS).

But to ensure the number of graduates meet projected demands, enrolments will have to rise even further—and that takes cash.

The previous study was released at the dawn of the Great Recession, and state funding for universities and colleges has become tighter as governments juggled budgets as revenues declined.

Thomas Henick-Kling, director of the viticulture and enology program at WSU, said enrollment this fall will total approximately 70 undergraduates, 28 graduate students and a further 120 students in the perennially full distance-learning program that issues certificates in viticulture and enology.

Meanwhile, some faculty are teaching four courses this fall—an extraordinary load.

“Our faculty are pretty loaded up with courses,” Henick-Kling said. “It’s hard for us to add more classes. It’s almost impossible without adding more faculty.”

And more faculty means more funding—the kind that comes from the state.

State funds will contribute to the operating costs of the new viticulture and enology research center nearing completion at WSU-Richland, but student demand for courses means funding for faculty is important, too.

Henick-Kling noted that even if graduates were drawn from other disciplines, the total number would still fall short of the wine industry’s requirements.

“We might have students that study biology or microbiology or chemistry, and then they end up in the winery,” he said. “But even if you take the same number from other ag or science programs, we’re still not there, really. It’s a discussion we’re going to have with our legislators.”

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