The axiom is “Ninety percent of the wine happens in the vineyard.” If that’s true it follows, for economic reasons as well as of better flavour, that every winery maker and vineyard owner wants the best trained staff possible to make the vineyard “happen.”
Here in B.C., still only an infant in the world wine industry by age, the incredible pace of growth never allowed for the development of a viticulture training program. This is something many wine owners want to change as continued growth and demographics point toward serious labour shortages.
In June of this year the BC Viticulture Industry Labour Market Information Research Report was released. The report attempted to gauge how industry felt about the current expertise of its workers and what was likely to happen in the next few years.
The report identified the skills a viticulture technician needs: works independently, but under the supervision of a vineyard manager; performs technical related duties related to the operation of a vineyard such as pruning, irrigation, pest control, operating and maintaining machinery and taking records; supervises less skillful workers such as farm hands, labourers, and pickers.
Among its other findings are that another 24 wineries will open in the next few years, but even without the extra demand from new wineries, the current labour market is not what it could be. A quarter of vineyard owners and operators ranked their workers’ skills as poor and another 58% said they were only “adequate.”
This is only a little different from how viticulture workers ranked themselves. In that case 54% thought their skills were sufficient to the task while 46% admitted they were barely adequate or inadequate.
The report was funded by the Labour Market Partnerships Program, part of B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation, but Carolyn MacLaren is keen to point out this isn’t a government initiative. MacLaren is chairperson of a 14-person steering committee asking if the industry needs a viticulture training program, and if it does, what form should it take. Says MacLaren, “More important yet is the need to communicate that this is an industry driven and led initiative (for industry by industry).”
The committee includes MacLaren, two government representatives, John Haller from Okanagan College, Pat Bowen from PARC and nine winery owners or vineyard managers.
Haller acknowledges what the report says, which is that Okanagan College’s program, the only one in B.C., has been focused on providing staff to work the winery, not in the fields.
MacLaren agrees, saying, “Okanagan College does have a program, but as it exists now, it doesn’t meet industry needs. It’s great for the wineries, but not so much for the viticulture.”
Instead she says, “We want something to mirror the German or Australian apprenticeships or even the one in Ontario.”
One of the key differences in British Columbia is the number of small wineries and grape growing operations. B.C. has just under 10,000 acres in grapes that support 705 growers and 210 wineries. Ontario has 15,000 acres, but only 500 growers and 146 wineries. Washington State produces wine grapes on 40,000 acres, but does so with only 350 growers who produce for 655 wineries. By contrast, Spain boasts the world’s largest grape cultivation, at 2.7 million acres.
Instead of just copying a foreign program the committee wants to tailor a program to B.C. needs. Among B.C.’s growers 24% say they don’t have enough properly trained viticulture staff right now and collectively, industry leaders expect that situation to get worse. In coming years 40% of them predict they won’t have enough.
Demographics is certainly part of this problem. Among B.C.’s greying population, the wine industry is greyest. Some 29% of trained viticulture workers are 55-plus, which is 12% ahead of the general working population.
On the other end, the absolute number of youth in B.C. is declining, as is the percentage of youth among the entire labour force, which means fewer candidates to attract into the industry.
According to MacLaren, young people see very few opportunities in the industry. “There is no career path; people outside see the Mexican picker or a winemaker, but nothing else in between.”
The result of that, as the report states, is: “There is a risk of losing good workers due to a perception and the lack of a clear career path.”
This is where the viticulture technician could be helpful, not only in providing vineyards with good staff, but in providing a pipeline of interested, energetic entrants for the future.
Okanagan College’s Haller says the training program isn’t just for new workers though. He says many wineries have identified skill shortages in the staff they have already. Haller believes if the training program was modular, it could help with that aspect.
A field worker who is great on the tractor could sign up for a module to improve their skills in, say, soil nutrients or pesticide applications. They build skills their employer needs without having to sacrifice an entire year, or more, of employment to increase their education.
The viticulture technician program is only a suggestion, for now. Haller says more studies are being completed, and Okanagan College is also dedicated to broadening the study to figure out what the entire industry needs, including, but not limited to the viticulture technician training program.
He says the next year will essentially be one of fact finding. ■