Wine Industry Recruiting in a Tight Market

Tips for wineries and vineyards on finding good people (or mechanizing instead)

by Paul Franson
california vineyard labor work
Vineyard labor is becoming increasingly difficult to find in California’s winegrowing regions.
Sacramento, Calif.—The U.S. labor pool is very shallow at the moment, with the unemployment rate at a low 5% and wineries struggling to fill most open positions.

At the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento earlier this year, a panel addressed this situation and offered some approaches to finding the right people—or automating so you don’t need them. 

The moderator was recruiter Amy Gardner of Sacramento-based Wine Talent. Joining her were Terry Bates of Cornell University in New York, who focused on mechanization; vineyard manager and grower Steve McIntyre of McIntyre Vineyards in Monterey County, Calif., who addressed finding and keeping vineyard workers; and Shanne Malilay of Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa, Calif., who discussed the company’s unusual approach to recruitment—treating it like marketing products.

A healthy economy means tough recruiting
Gardner began by setting the stage. “The December 2015 Jobs Report was significantly stronger than anticipated, with low unemployment continuing and longer term employer confidence than in recent years.”

She noted that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January 2016 the highest level of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs since April 2008, the beginning of the recession.

“2.8 million Americans left an employer voluntarily last year,” she said. “That’s a strong barometer of economic health; people are confident enough to leave a job they have. They wouldn’t leave during the recession.”

During the recession, one job was open for every seven unemployed people. Now it’s one job per only 1.5 people looking for work.

Gardner commented, “Monthly level of job openings has reached a new peak with over 5 million jobs posted since February 2015.”

The good news for workers is that more jobs are available, but that leads to bad news for employers who are not able to fill positions.

In the wine business specifically, Wine Business Monthly’s winejobs.com website had the most job postings in the site’s history in 2015—almost double where things were at the last peak in 2007, when Winejobs became an industry resource.

“Winejobs is a great resource and an accurate indication of wine employment. It’s the first place I post,” Gardner said. The site listed 809 more postings in 2015 than 2014.

According to Eric Jorgensen, publisher of Wine Business Monthly, which operates Winejobs.com, postings for January and February 2016 were up an average of 9%.

Gardner commented that some companies are even listing jobs that aren’t yet open just to be on the safe side. Then they can move quickly if a position opens.

Shortage of vineyard workers
The next speaker, Steve McIntyre, discussed the pressures on growers due to increasing scrutiny on undocumented laborers and regulations as well as inflammatory rhetoric by Republican presidential candidates.

“We used to depend on farm labor contractors, but now workers working for them are treated like your employees—especially regarding health care reform.” He added that probably 60% of the vineyard labor pool (60,000-70,000 people) is undocumented. “If I use E-Verify to check them, I can’t hire them.”

One positive program he mentioned is the H2A program for guest workers who can legally return to Mexico.

The local industry in Monterey also has started a program to use disabled laborers.

Terry Bates of Cornell University in New York talked about mechanizing grapegrowing, admitting that he was addressing only part of the issue. “There’s no labor where I come from, but we have 32,000 acres of grapes,” mostly Concords for Welch’s, which have comparatively low value per ton.

In the past, labor was plentiful and prices higher; now the reverse is true. One result is that labor for at least 40% of the vines is at least partly mechanized.

He quoted a price of $220 per acre for hand pruning if wages are $11 to $14 per hour. “Minimal pruning didn’t work,” he added. Most companies pre-prune mechanically, then follow up by hand. “They leave more buds than they need on the vines with mechanical pruning, then thin when they know they don’t need the canes.”

A new approach to recruiting

Moderator Gardner suggested that the process of recruiting candidates is much like that of selling wines direct to consumers (DtC): direct to candidate.

That led to perhaps the most interesting and useful talk of the session: how Shanne Malilay, director of talent acquisition at Jackson Family Wines, led the company to treat recruitment like product marketing.

Malilay mentioned that he has worked for Jackson for less than two years. “When I arrived, they weren’t looking strategically at hiring. There was no recruitment branding, and they had a small budget for hiring.” They also had gaps in talent in production.

He helped the company develop a strategy through a series of meetings with leaders in DtC, production, sales, marketing and corporate teams at various locations.

Part of the new approach was to treat recruitment like the company treated the marketing of its products: This included branding the company (JFW) as an employer of choice using marketing collateral, event displays and social media.

They moved all recruitment and career information to jacksonfamilywines.com from individual brands like Kendall-Jackson.

They actively sought new sources of talent including veterans and individuals with disabilities as well as forming partnerships with high schools and community colleges for internships. “There are huge opportunities for people with disabilities,” said Malilay.

“We wanted to create talent communities to draw on,” he added. “We sought to engage passive candidates and build a pipeline of people who were ready to be hired.”

This required them to identify internal candidates and leverage their employees and their contacts. “We have about 1,500 employees, and we filled 453 positions last year from inside,” said Malilay.

This led to enhanced career pages online and frequent communications to applicants. “We send a minimum of two responses to each candidate and include a 30-second video clip from employees.”

They also improved the application process with editable online English and Spanish applications and enhancing technology like DocuSign while continuing to build JFW’s presence on LinkedIn, the primary job-oriented social medium, and JFW’s Twitter feed. “It hadn’t been treated as a recruitment tool before,” Malilay said.

More than 4,000 people follow JFW on LinkedIn, and they’re now actively engaged, not just passive. And a high percentage of candidates enjoy Jackson Family wines as well, which the company is able to leverage.

In addition, the company has created 10 formal internships across the country; their goal is to hire 80% of the interns.

Malilay mentioned that agencies get 20$ to 30% of first year’s pay, and Gardner added, “You need to charge your employees to help in recruiting,” and selflessly suggested offering bonuses.

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