Winery Hiring Activity Soars Through COVID Disruptions
October 07, 2021
AS THE FIRST PICKS of the 2021 harvest began, wineries continued to struggle to hire the front-line workers needed in the tasting room and on the crush pad.
Reports from human resources managers and data from Winejobs.com describe a competitive market for direct-to-consumer (DTC) staff and production workers as the industry continues to wrestle with ongoing disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recruiting for higher-level positions, however, appears to be mostly unaffected as the near-universal acceptance of online meetings continues to make the hiring process quicker and easier for all those involved.
The more pressing issue has been a dearth of candidates who are willing and available to take on hourly jobs. In response, wineries have offered hiring bonuses, promised new hires a retention bonus or pay raise following the first few months of employment and used referrals from their existing employees to fill open positions.
Prior to the pandemic, wineries already had to compete for service employees and now, 16 months into it, they must fight harder than ever for candidates from a labor pool that has shrunk and been displaced. There are financial incentives to stay out of the work force—although the additional federal unemployment came to an end on Sept. 6, 2021—as well as personal reasons, including concerns about a resurgence of COVID and simply no longer wanting to work in hourly service roles.
In response, winery hiring activity has surged. The Winejobs.com Winery Job Index data correlates to the number of postings active on the Winejobs.com jobs board. When the index value increases, that represents a higher number of job postings and indicates a corresponding increase in hiring activity.
In April 2020, the index value fell to 171, yet by April of 2021 it had come roaring back to 740 and winery hiring has been at that record pace ever since. In July, the index was up 96 percent compared to the previous year and hiring was led by DTC jobs as the DTC subindex was up 171 percent. During the latest 12 months ended in July, demand for DTC roles has seen the strongest growth, up 59 percent versus the same period a year ago and demand for winemaking staff was up 32 percent in the period.
What’s Fueled the Shortage in Labor?
During an Aug. 25 webinar on the national labor market, Wells Fargo senior economist and managing director Mark Vitner said there has been an uneven recovery in the jobs. While California had recovered just 58 percent of the jobs lost to the pandemic as of July 2021, Texas had regained 82 percent and North Carolina had recouped 92 percent of those jobs. “In my view, and particularly for lower wage positions, the expansion of federal benefits is the single largest reason for holding people back from returning to work,” he said.
Yet there are other forces in play that make this economic recovery unique. Fellow Wells Fargo senior economist Sara House said during the same webinar that the disrupted school year and childcare are also significant factors. With schools just getting back to something like normal and total daycare employment still down 11 percent, many women with children have not been able to return to work and House said that represents around 1.1 million workers.
Older workers are also opting to retire. Since the start of the pandemic, the share of people older than 65 in the work force has fallen from 21 percent to around 18.5 percent and that represents a loss of another 1 million workers.
Companies in the service sector have already responded, with average hourly wages up 16.6 percent. Vitner said the necessary increase in wages is forcing restaurants in particular to automate where they can and focus on higher margin channels like drive-through and to-go orders.
For salaried, skilled workers the biggest change is working from home. House described the work-from-home trend as the “biggest shift in the labor market in decades.”
Wineries Get Creative
These transformative macro-economic and societal trends are all intersecting to make winery hiring, which was already challenging prior to the pandemic, even more difficult.
“This has been the most challenging recruitment season we have ever faced, and I would say most other organizations would say the same thing,” said Suzi Potts, senior vice president and head of people at Wente Vineyards, which is based in Livermore, Calif. and produces around 540,000 cases of wine a year. “We definitely have been more creative, and we’ve worked in partnership to leverage our professional network as a company.”
That has included a new employee referral program with a cash incentive paid after the new hire completes the introductory period of their position. Potts said Wente has also strengthened its “employment brand” while simultaneously using a variety of social media networks to both recruit for positions and promote working at the company. LinkedIn and social media posts by individual employees have bolstered messaging through company accounts.
That outreach has helped, but Potts said in late August—as the company brought in its first Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Monterey County—the company was still slightly understaffed, and she didn’t expect hiring for the most in-demand positions to get any easier any time soon.
She said filling higher level roles is taking longer but that labor market is closer to what’s been considered normal although the option from working from home is now a major consideration for new hires. Potts said talent is looking for a hybrid work model, whereby the employee can mix both office and remote work, which fits within Wente’s overall staffing strategy.
J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines’ director of human resources, Jenifer Martinez, said the company has been trying to hire a tasting room host, hospitality lead and hospitality manager and has received only 15 or so applications for all three roles. The same level of interest has met postings for full-time jobs in the wine lab and warehouse.
Seasonal work has been even more challenging, as the winery, which makes around 1.7 million cases a year, is in competition for a dwindling labor pool. “For harvest jobs, the larger companies are offering huge sign-on bonuses and higher pay, so people are going there, and we’ve even lost some temps to them,” she said in an email.
Martinez said Lohr has responded by adding information on the company’s benefits and culture in job postings while also making some pay adjustments to stay as competitive as possible.
by Andrew Adams
Andrew Adams is the editor of the Wine Analytics Report and was a writer and editor at Wines & Vines magazine from 2011 to 2018. Adams grew up in the city of Sonoma, Calif., and graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. In addition to working at daily newspapers for more than a decade, Adams worked in the cellar and lab at the former Starmont winery in Napa Valley.