Photo: Andre Castelluci / Wine Australia

Securing talent in viticulture and winemaking

RD&E News | May 2019
Photo: Andre Castelluci / Wine Australia
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In a recent New York Times article on the Australian wine sector (I encourage you to reflect on that achievement for a moment), Mac Forbes, a winemaker from in and around the Yarra Valley made the following point when referring to the status and importance of viticulture[1]:

‘For a long time, farming and agriculture had been heavily dismissed’, said Mac Forbes. ‘We’re not trying to grow great wine’, he said. ‘We’re trying to farm to understand the place.’ That’s a challenge. He goes on to say… ‘A bigger problem than climate change is attracting good, young people to agriculture.’

It’s a bold but striking and important framing of the issue. When it comes to climate change we are all very familiar with the debate and magnitude of the challenge. And that is exactly Mac’s point – attracting the youngest and brightest to our sector, and keeping them there, deserves the same level of attention, if not more. Think about the consequences if we don’t address this problem.

Australia has 2468 wineries and 6251 grapegrowers, who collectively employ more than 170,000 full and part-time staff across 65 winegrowing regions in Australia. This contributes more $40 billion to the Australian economy.[2]

One of the pressing concerns for our sector is attracting and retaining staff and, while the demand for higher skills increases, the sector is concerned that course offerings from both TAFE and universities are in decline. More generally, businesses are finding it difficult to fill vacancies and retain workers in various streams of the sector; from the vineyard – with a shortage of senior vineyard managers a very real current concern – to the cellar door, particularly in regional locations.

Image: Ewen Bell / Wine Australia

This is a problem across agriculture, with the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture observing that the job market for graduates of tertiary agriculture qualifications is five times larger than the supply of graduates.[3]

Labour and skill challenges will impact individual wine businesses and regions differently. However, the key issues facing the sector can be summarised as follows:

  • ageing workforce
  • gender imbalance
    • employment of women in the wine sector is still well below 50 per cent and in our leadership and senior roles, female representation has been estimated at 8–10 per cent[4]
  • fewer young entrants
  • potential limits on skilled migration
  • attracting people to the regions
  • mismatch between sector needs and educational offerings
  • new skills required to tackle automation, digitisation, climate change, marketing, and
  • enhanced people management skills to deal with succession, intergenerational and diverse workforces.

Workforce issues also contribute to the challenges of staying in business. These include not only labour and skills shortages but also an ageing workforce and sometimes the absence of good succession planning, an issue that can be especially fraught in a family business.

Image: Andre Castelluci / Wine Australia

The challenge is one Andy Clarke, Wine Australia supported Nuffield scholar and recently announced Future Leader for 2019, is prepared to tackle head on. Andy has been instrumental in ensuring that we have a platform for discussing the issues and working towards possible solutions at a forthcoming workshop titled ‘Securing and safeguarding skills for the future’ during the Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference.

As Andy said, ‘we are not going to solve the problem in 2.5 hours, but we will come up with a roadmap for how people can drive collaborative change in their own business and region as well as come up with a set of priorities for sector bodies or working groups to focus on’.

The workshop is supported by Wine Australia and will see an outstanding group assembled to lend their expertise, including Future Leaders alumni Ashley Keegan (CEO, Fabal Operations) and Katherine Brown (Assistant Winemaker and Brand Ambassador, Brown Family Wine Group). They will be joined by Henrik Wallgren (business services manager, South Australian Wine Industry Association); Derek Tiller (Nuffield scholar and grain grower), Erin Gorter (Primary Industries Education Foundation Australia Board Member and Meat and Livestock Australia Board member) and Professor Peter Høj AC (Vice Chancellor and President The University of Queensland and Wine Australia Board Director).

At the workshop, we will be developing strategies to foster stronger sector–education linkages and nurture educational pathways. We will be considering ways to change perceptions of what a career in viticulture and wine looks like and how we can build prestige in to the role. We’ll also debate whether the relatively new concept in Australia of higher apprenticeships would fill a gap in lifting the level of sector relevant skills in viticulture and winemaking.

Image: Andre Castelluci / Wine Australia

The growing dearth of university-trained middle managers is also interesting. Many of the solutions point to strong sector and enterprise commitments to change the status quo. How do we help to retain the early entrants to the sector, give them goals to strive towards and help to develop them further?

As Peter Høj will allude to, current courses or even jobs may not exist in 20 years, so what then? His point is … ‘the wine sector must come to accept wildly disruptive ideas’.

Yet disruption is already here and has skills implications: many aspects of grape growing and wine making are becoming digitally controlled and wirelessly connected. That means a vast amount of data is being generated and needs to be understood and leveraged

Automation is freeing up human resources and is changing capital investment. Digital disruption is also changing how the sector interacts with consumers. Other disruption is coming from changes in the climate, which brings us back to Mac Forbes’ synchronous framing of the two issues. We need to focus on attracting talent and supporting skills that can be learned first in an educational institution but also on-the-job and that need to be refreshed and refined throughout life. Like climate change, we need to act now.

It is not too late to register for the conference and the workshop – visit awitc.com.au. If you would like to attend the workshop but cannot attend the full conference, or if you cannot attend but have ideas to share, please contact jo.hargreaves@wineaustralia.com.


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