Washington Grapples with Labor Supply

Schooling, apprenticeships and communication will be keys to filling shortages

by Peter Mitham
Yakima Vineyards
The growing sprawl of vineyards in Washington's Yakima Valley is creating an urgent need for skilled workers to tend vines and make wine.
Yakima, Wash. -- Cellar masters and field workers will be in high demand among Washington state wineries over the next five years as the industry seeks to catch up with its rapid growth. A skills survey presented to the Washington Wine Commission, Washington Wine Institute and Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers at the Washington Wine Summit last week identified a potential shortage of skilled workers over the next five years, especially those with scientific training.

"There's the potential of having some significant gap between the demand for workers at all skill levels and the supply," Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, told Wines & Vines. "The study reinforces the need to have a variety of different options for existing and prospective workers and employees."

The top three positions wineries expect to have trouble filling within the next five years are cellar masters, lab technicians and enologists. Approximately two-thirds of survey respondents identifying these as the most acute positions of need.

An even sharper shortage is expected in the vineyard, with 94.4% of survey respondents identifying fieldworkers as being in short supply. The ongoing demand reflects the growth of the Washington state wine industry since the last skills survey was released in 2001. Wineries now number approximately 600, up from 170 in 2001. The industry currently employs 14,000 people within the state, Pollard said, with an additional 5,000 people engaged in distribution and sales nationwide.

Wineries and vineyards added between 1,414 and 2,351 workers in the last three years alone, according to the skills study. While the industry's growth is slowing, the study estimates that between 1,080 and 1,791 workers are needed to meet growth within the next five years.

While a number of factors are limiting the opening of new wineries, existing wineries are planning expansions that will require additional staff. The challenge is keeping up with requirements.

Pollard would like to see ongoing training opportunities for everyone from vineyard managers to cellar rats. The need is one of four key areas the study highlights for industry leadership. An apprenticeship program for new workers, modeled on programs in other industries, is another potential opportunity. The report also recommends better coordination among the various schools and tracking of program graduates, as well as giving students better information about opportunities in the industry.

To facilitate training and movement of skilled workers into the industry, the report recommends reviving the Washington Viticulture and Enology Education Consortium, which sponsored the 2001 skills survey. The previous survey was the foundation for Washington State University's viticulture and enology option, as well as the program at Walla Walla Community College.

Kay Simon
Kay Simon, winemaker at Chinook Wines, believes that reviving the erstwhile Washington Viticulture and Enology Education Consortium will foster communication between the industry and academia.
Kay Simon, winemaker at Chinook Wines in Prosser, delivered the presentation regarding the revived consortium at last week's summit, and believes reviving the consortium could provide needed communication and coordination between schools and industry.

"I think there's a big space for communication that will be served by having a consortium back in place," she told Wines & Vines. "The industry has grown dramatically; therefore the need for students has also grown, and I think it's just important that communication be part of how people develop these programs."

It will be especially vital as the economic slowdown squeezes state budgets, and in turn education funding. Chinook is small enough that it isn't scrambling for workers, but Simon said that interns and assistants who come to work for her find it difficult to access training. "It's difficult for them to get into the program that best suits them," she explained.

Her current assistant has a four-year degree in a field unrelated to winemaking, but would like to move into viticulture and enology. The enology courses offered by WSU Extension for its certificate program are booked until 2010, for example, which means Simon's assistant has been attending seminars in California and finding other ways to satisfy her thirst for training.

Yakima Vineyards
Students in Washington State University's thriving viticulture and enology program take an educational stroll through the vineyard.
But that's not ideal. "We say, 'You send the kids to California for school--they're not coming back.' You want them to be educated here so they stay here," Simon said.

The adage might be an overstatement, but she said it underlines industry's desire to see students who want to work in the wine industry trained locally, and ultimately grounded in the Washington state industry.

Pollard hopes to see the consortium revived early in 2009. An apprenticeship program and other recommendations of the study will also be addressed in the coming months.

Consortium priorities

The skills survey presented at the Washington Wine Summit last week identifies six priorities for a renewed Washington Viticulture and Enology Education Consortium:
  • Coordinate existing education and training programs, and track enrollments and completions;
  • Develop career pathway maps, establishing industry-wide agreement on job titles, skill requirements, credentials and career ladders;
  • Carry out a Washington wine industry salary survey;
  • Identify short-term training needs, select providers, and help arrange and promote training sessions;
  • Study the feasibility of a four-year apprenticeship program combining both studies and work;
  • Develop an industry-wide plan for meeting demand for unskilled/semi-skilled workers.
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