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New Apprenticeship Program in Cellars

U.S. Department of Labor has registered skill standards

by Jane Firstenfeld
Fergus Falls, Minn. -- At a time when many in the wine industry are concerned about dwindling sources of skilled labor, an agricultural advocacy foundation, working with educational institutions, prominent wineries and the federal government, is providing a novel solution. The United States Department of Labor (DOL) recently certified the skill standards for a new apprenticeship program for wine cellar workers, developed by the Communicating for Agriculture Scholarship and Education Foundation of Minnesota-based Communicating for America (CA), a stamp of recognition that will benefit wineries and would-be wine workers alike.

Greg Smedsrud, vice president of CA, represented the organization during the certification process which took about two years, working closely with Napa Valley College, Kendall-Jackson Winery, Constellation Wines, Cakebread Cellars, Chateau Montelena, Blackstone, Ferrari-Carano, Schug, Clos Pegase and Ramey Wine Cellars. He explained the procedure to Wines & Vines in a phone interview.

"First, we went to Napa Valley College to learn the course objectives for its viticulture and winery technology program. We documented these requirements as 'knows.' Then we formed a committee of cornerstone members--wineries that were willing to look at these educational objectives and specify the skills needed for each. They added other skills they needed, too. This was the fascinating part: Napa College then wanted to incorporate these additional skills into their program," Smedsrud recalled.

"Once we'd defined what we believed were the necessary skills for a cellar worker, we needed ratification by the industry. We asked our 500 member wineries to vote on the skill standards, and that ratification from a representative sample of the industry allowed the DOL to certify the apprenticeship standards."

The result is a registered, official apprenticeship certification program, incorporating both academic learning and hands-on experience. As an apprentice fulfills both aspects of a given skill, e.g., pumpovers, he or she receives a "green light" on a searchable job board on CA's website, where wineries seeking trained staff can find potential employees certified to perform the specific functions required.

While the concept of apprenticeship is itself ancient, in the U.S., it took hold during the WPA and union activities of the Great Depression, according to Smedsrud. Union apprenticeships are typically time-based, however, while CA's apprenticeships are strictly competency-based, requiring book-learning and demonstrated skill at specific tasks.

In 2006, CA did a trial run of the cellar worker apprenticeship program, placing six apprentices from around the country in California wineries. The program differs from the internships common in the industry, in that, at least for now, apprentices will be U.S. citizens; and they are paid. Federal law requires only minimum wage but, "Wineries are paying industry standard wages," Smedsrud said, even though there are neither subsidies nor tax breaks for the employers.

Ramey Wine Cellars owner David Ramey, told Wines & Vines, "I've been a board member of CA since 1992. I got involved to help with their exchange program," which provides temporary, foreign trainees. Although Ramey plans to host four foreign trainees this harvest, "The apprenticeship program is different, and new, and we would use it for adding permanent, full-time staff. It is oriented toward U.S. citizens who are interested in full-time employment in the wine industry."

Smedsrud credited U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao with her vision to "create a competitive American worker." CA is working with other colleges and universities to expand the certification program to the rest of the nation's winegrowing regions. And that's not the end of Smedsrud's mission. "Getting this one done allows us to go forth and do two other things," he said. "We have the authority to go ahead and develop standards for all of agriculture. We're almost done with the horticulture requirements, and almost done with viticulture. We hope to replicate this program quickly."

And Smedsrud, when we spoke, was heading off on a three-month overseas trip, during which he planned to map and coordinate CA's certified skills standards to established wine industry standards in Europe and Australia. "We are carrying ourselves as the U.S. standards board, to establish a landmark position," he said. "The DOL has never allowed certification from someone outside the States." With the new established standards, apprentices may soon be able to continue their certification process, for instance, during harvest season in the Southern Hemisphere. "Don't wait 'til next fall," he suggested to ambitious apprentices. "We hope to send people to Australia or South Africa. We have scholarships available," he added.

Although two of the nation's largest wineries were involved in establishing the standards, Smedsrud notes that "large wineries tend to limit the breadth of job exposure" for trainees. "Small to medium wineries can take on more mentoring." He recalled one of the six participants in last year's pilot program, "a farm boy from North Dakota, a North Dakota University graduate. He trained last fall at Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma County, he's going back there this fall to complete more of his check-offs, and then he's going to Australia."

While the new program has obvious advantages for the labor-hungry wine industry, the largest benefits will be to the individual apprentices, Smedsrud said. "The biggest difference is that we as an organization are registered, acknowledged and recognized as creating the national standards for the occupation of cellar worker." The participating educational institutions will provide recruitment of candidates, and the number of potential apprentices is limited only by the number of applicants and the number of wineries willing to hire and train them.

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