Taking these grapes from the field to the wine bottle takes a chain of skilled workers. (Steve Kidd/Western News)

Growing demand for skilled workers in the wine industry

A lot of work goes into creating a bottle of wine

When people think about careers in the wine industry, it’s often the winemaker or the sommelier that come to mind.

But long before the sommelier can put their expert knowledge to use, helping you pick out the perfect wine for your meal, there is a chain of career professionals working to bring that grape from vineyard to table.

“If you talk to the winemakers, they will say the wine is made in the vineyard,” said Dr. Gabriel Balint, chair of the Viticulture Technician Diploma Program at Okanagan College Penticton. “And I totally agree. If you don’t have good grapes, you can’t do anything in the winery.”

Stepping outside the cellar, there is the world of viticulture — the growing of grapes for the wines. And Balint said there is a growing demand for skilled workers in this field. It breaks down into many facets: growing the grapes, managing the grapes, harvesting the grapes, managing that whole procedure, everything from water to heat control to pruning.

“Their expectations are very high, so they expect graduates from this program to be able to take over right away, as a vineyard manager, an assistant, a viticulturist,” said Balint, adding that the college’s programs are evolving so students’ knowledge doesn’t stop at the vineyard gate, explaining there is benefit to understanding the full cycle of winemaking, so viticulturists understand what the winemakers need and vice versa.

In the winery, the winemaker is first and foremost, but they don’t work alone. There are also skilled jobs in the wine cellar that are career tracks in themselves but can also be a path to becoming a winemaker.

“There are all sorts of people working in the wine cellar. They are playfully called ‘the cellar rats.’ There is that whole world,” joked Tina Baird, marketing manager for the Naramata Bench Winery Association.

Outside the direct chain of grape growing and winemaking, there are all sorts of careers supporting the process. Okanagan College said there is an increasing need for employees who understand all its aspects, from the essentials of grape growing and the science of winemaking through to wine and winery sales and marketing.

Baird said there is not only careers manufacturing equipment for the wine industry, there is a rapidly growing tech sector dedicated to the wine industry, developing everything from specialized equipment to monitor the grapes in the vineyard to the development of wine management software.

Baird said there are also marketing experts like herself dedicated to the wine industry, but also managers, administrators, even event planners.

“Then you also have designers. They do labels, they do all marketing materials and more. So there are designers that are focusing in on the wine industry,” said Baird.

Balint would like to see more local people enrolling in the programs. Some people, he said, don’t believe they good get a good wage working in the vineyard.

“It depends what you are doing in the vineyard. These people from our program, we expect them to earn a high wage because they will be highly qualified,” said Balint. “We are training these people for B.C., but they will be really good. I am quite sure they can go anywhere in the world to find a job.”

A renewed focus on engaging young people, and particularly women, in trades and technology as early as high-school isamong the initiatives being championed by industry and educators alike.

It is hoped that introducing someone to these kinds of skills-based work early can give them a head start on building asuccessful career.

Steven Moores, dean of trades and technology at Okanagan College, says “one of the focuses of the Industry TrainingAuthority (ITA) is to introduce and expose high school students at an earlier age to the trades. We’ve done that verysuccessfully in pretty much every region throughout the Okanagan.”

Engaging students in high school allows them to begin exploring their options and building useful skills early on, helpingthem make an informed choice about what to pursue. In addition, students who are particularly keen on the trades can worktowards college credit while still in Grade 12. In most cases, the tuition is fully sponsored and requires no financialinvestment.

“We have high school students in all of our trades programs, that is called a dual-credit program, where students enrol inGrade 12 and they can get a real good start towards that first year of an apprenticeship program,” Moores says. “It gives themhigh school credits plus it gives them a start in the trades. It’s very successful, we have an excess of 200 students who comethrough our programs from all regions each year.”

Related link: Getting a jump-start on trades skills

Dwayne Geiger, partnership and transitions coordinator for the schools of trades and technology at TRU, believes anintroduction to skills-based training can give students a competitive advantage, even if the trades are not their end-game.

Geiger says “they really get a strong sense of that program or that trade, but at the end of a foundation program really whatthey get is a certificate for a foundation in a trade. They can end their career in trades right there, but they have skills thatthey are certified in that they can then go out and make money with. They’re already three bucks an hour ahead of everybodyelse as far as skill sets.”

In comparison with other provinces, he feels confident in saying “as far as structured programming, I would put B.C. upagainst any province in the country in terms of what we can offer to young people.”

Interestingly, he notes that many students use trades education as a stepping stone to move onto other academic pursuits,taking advantage of a TRU policy that allows students who have completed a Red Seal program to transfer credits into otherprograms at the university.

“If you finish your Red Seal program, which is approximately four to five years, if you want you can then get two-year’s credittowards any bachelors program in technology or tech leadership at TRU,” Geiger says. “Many students, when they finish theirRed Seal, they will get their two year’s credit towards an education degree for example and then they go and do their mastersand further.”

These dual-credit programs, offered by both Okanagan College and Thompson Rivers University, have received praise fromindustry and educators as a way to help students build employable skills at a young age. Moores also notes that OkanaganCollege is working to offer all-female Gateway to the Trades programs in the future.

This goes hand-in-hand with other initiatives the ITA is supporting at TRU and Okanagan College: the Women in TradesTraining and Gateway to the Trades for Women programs.

Nancy Darling, spokesperson for the Women in Trades Training program at Okanagan College, says “what we do is bringwomen who haven’t had previous experience, or haven’t had a chance to get their hands on the tools of the trade, into aclassroom and shop where they get to try out six or seven different trades.”

Aside from simply teaching these women the mechanical skills required to work in the trades, Darling hopes they come out ofthe program with a sense that they belong in the trades and have equal footing in the workplace.

Related link: Opportunities for women in trades

“In addition to skills training, we’re giving them confidence in this environment. Once they get their hands on the tools, theygain confidence to take that next step,” Darling says. “We know that diversity makes us stronger, women have natural skillsthat are different than men, and it’s nice to have a complete mix of everybody on a job site, it brings different perspectives toa finished product.”

When asked for a suggestion on what trades might be currently in-demand and looking to hire, Moores notes that theconstruction and building trades have seen explosive growth in recent years across the province.

He says “throughout the region construction, any kind of construction, is just going crazy. The demand right now forcarpenters, for plumbers, for sheet metal workers, is extremely high.”

Perhaps a bit more surprising, however, is the increasing demand for skilled workers in the aircraft maintenance engineerposition.

“These are the people who work on the structure of the plane,” Moores says. “You just can’t find these people anywhere. We’veset up additional shop space and classrooms at the airport where we lease space. These disciplines are in high, high demandright now, so it’s a great time to get into aerospace.”

If you are looking for a new start through education or employment visit the Black Press Extreme Education and Career Fair, which takes places on Monday, March 12 at Okanagan College in Kelowna (1000 K.L.O. Road), from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more info: facebook.com/BlackPressExtremeEducationandCareerFair

Steve Kidd
Senior reporter, Penticton Western News
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