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B.C. Studies Vineyard Skills Shortage

Consultants recommend 'viticulture technician' designation in British Columbia

by Peter Mitham
british columbia wine grape council vineyard viticulture technician
A human resources steering committee is exploring the idea of a formal "viticulture technician" designation.
Penticton, British Columbia—An aging workforce, increasing competition for new workers and a simmering dissatisfaction with training of those workers is prompting British Columbia’s wine industry to seek a new designation for viticulture talent.

“There’s a human resources gap,” said Carolyn MacLaren, a human resources consultant and chair of the Viticulture Labour Market Human Resources steering committee established by the B.C. Wine Grape Council. “We’re not developing our local talent in that area.”

A labor market report drafted by Vancouver consulting firm Roslyn Kunin and Associates Inc. and presented by MacLaren at the B.C. Wine Grape Council meeting held July 17 in Penticton, B.C., suggests that 7% of employers are dissatisfied with vineyard workers, while 46% of workers feel their training is “inadequate” for the work they’re doing.

“We’ve done a not-bad job in the province on training for wineries or winemaking. We haven’t really put the same effort into training for vineyard employees,” MacLaren told a workshop at the conference. “With the skill set and the training they have, they’re not going to be moving up any higher.”

One of the strategies the steering committee is exploring to address the issue is formalization of a “viticulture technician” designation. The report defines such technicians as the skilled workers supervised by vineyard managers who perform a range of duties in the vineyard from pruning to equipment maintenance as well as record-keeping and supervision of farm hands.

Job description
An estimated 2,000 workers fit this description in the province, according to the report’s researchers.

The report recommends formalizing the designation, using it specifically to refer to workers who fill this role:

“ ‘Viticulture technician’ means a person who constructs and maintains vineyard operations including planting, grafting, pruning, irrigating and harvesting of grapes. The person must have knowledge of grape varieties, soil conditions, pesticides, herbicides and basic plant biology. A viticulture technician must have the ability to operate farm equipment and to build and maintain trellises and canopies. The position is responsible for records management, supervision of farm labourers and working under the direction of the vineyard manager.”

The report also recommends developing a formal training program, through either a diploma course or an apprenticeship program. A formal certification program would establish an entry point for the occupation, helping to define the career path for workers who currently lack a clear idea of the opportunities available to them.

“There’s not a clear track,” MacLaren said. “People don’t know what the jobs are in the sector, and they don’t know how to progress through a career pathway to become a winemaker or to work in the cellar or to become a viticulture technician. It keeps people out of the sector.”

A survey of vineyard owner-operators conducted this spring in preparation of the report indicated that wages are hardly an incentive for workers. B.C.’s minimum wage increased to $10.25 an hour this spring, but wages for viticulture technicians average just a few dollars more.

“Most often, workers (51%) are paid $11-$14.99 per hour,” the report states. “Another 34% of respondents report their workers (are) paid $15-$19.99 per hour.”

The small size of most vineyards in the province mean few employers can offer long-term work. Owner-operated vineyards average 29 acres, while the single biggest group of vineyards—more than 30%—are between 5 and 10 acres. This has prompted employers such as Tinhorn Creek Vineyards to find ways to keep workers employed with a range of duties during the off-season.

“Those interviewed who have been more successful in retaining workers have tried to pay above average wages, provided accommodation, transportation, offered snacks, coffee and a flexible time schedule,” the report says.

While 67% of study participants believe a formal viticulture technician training program is needed, the report concludes, “There is no clear consensus amongst the industry respondents on the need (for) a formal viticulture technician qualification and training program.”

The larger wineries and vineyards have typically implemented in-house training programs, while smaller operators contract out vineyard duties to management companies that have training programs.

Made in B.C.
However, a formal training program would provide a made-in-B.C. training opportunity that addresses local needs and develops a vision for the industry.

“A significant portion of the sector in B.C. that feels strongly about developing and utilizing a B.C.-based viticulture training program that focuses on the current and upcoming needs of the industry’s employers,” the report states.

Competition for talent is also a significant factor—and one not unique to viticulture.

Approximately 15% of viticulture workers expect to retire in the next five years, but growth in the number of viticulture technicians is expected to be just 12% over the same period. (Province-wide, the demand for all workers is expected to outstrip supply by approximately 11,000 people by 2017.)

“The push for skilled labour currently driving western Canada will continue to increase as the natural resource industry pulls skilled workers across North America with significantly higher wages than viticulture pays,” the report notes.

MacLaren says the challenge for the viticulture sector will be in finding n ot just people for jobs, but the right people for the jobs vineyards are offering.

“(We’re) competing with all those sectors around us for fewer human resources,” she said. “Do you just have more bodies, or do you have the right people in the right places?”

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