Washington state grapegrowers and winemakers are justifiably proud of their impressive trajectory during the past decade. Vineyard area has nearly doubled to almost 50,000 acres, and bonded winery numbers have more than tripled to over 800. But industry leaders are curious about whether they can sustain such growth. Are there enough skilled workers coming down the training pipeline?

To answer that question, a consortium of the state’s agricultural colleges hired Prosser-based Agri-Business Consultants to complete an industry-wide employment and educational needs assessment – the first since 2001. The results point to a broad spectrum of job estimates for the year 2018. At the high end, the industry will require almost 6,500 new workers; but even the low estimate points to an additional 2,200 full-time equivalents during the next four years.

Numbers don’t mean much in isolation, so what is the context? First, it’s worth noting that the overwhelming majority (93%) of these roles are not expected to require post-secondary training. It’s the remaining 7% – about 470 new positions – that demand the attention of state viticulture and enology educators. Can Washington State University (WSU) and community colleges in Yakima Valley and Walla Walla supply this projected demand for associate’s and bachelor’s degree graduates? It depends.

Agri-Business Consultants developed its growth estimates from two factors. The low estimate – 5.4% – is based on average vineyard acreage expansion in Washington since 1999. The high-end figure – 12.3% – is based on average growth in bonded winery numbers here over the same 14 years. If actual industry growth follows the former estimate, about 32 new graduates with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees will be required for the workforce during each of the coming four years. In this scenario, the state’s agricultural educational output will be stretched, but it should be adequate. However, if industry growth tracks the high estimate, approximately 95 graduates with A.S. and B.S qualifications will be needed each year. In that case, WSU and the community colleges will need many more resources to keep up.

Which version of the future appears more likely? “The state industry is still very optimistic about growth,” said Thomas Henick-Kling, director of the viticulture and enology program at WSU. “Large local companies like Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Precept Brands are doing well. Plus, Gallo and others are investing here – and they all need people. I get regular phone calls asking about whether we can supply more interns.”

WSU operates the state’s sole bachelor’s degree program in viticulture and enology. Henick-Kling said the department has 70 declared majors, and graduates about 10 or 12 people each year. But that number has doubled from four years ago, and it continues to rise. One reason is that WSU now operates articulation agreements with the Yakima Valley and Walla Walla community colleges. These provide a clear pathway for students who complete two-year viticulture or enology degrees to transfer into a bachelor’s program. In fact, more than half of WSU’s current program undergrads are transfers from these community colleges. Additionally, WSU is setting up an agreement with South Seattle Community College. With all of these feeder programs, Henick-Kling said that he expects WSU’s annual graduation rates to exceed 25 students in the near future.

Such growth will go a long way to address state industry needs, but it won’t completely fill the job openings projected by Agri-Business Consultants’ high growth estimate. Therefore, talent from out-of-state institutions still will be required – which Henick-Kling and others welcome as part of a healthy industry culture. Even so, other regional leaders suggest that a significant labor shortfall may not be looming.

“I believe we’ll continue to expand,” said Todd Newhouse, the chairman of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. “But there are factors on the ground that will keep things in check. For example, cabernet sauvignon offers the most growth potential for us right now; but we can’t plant cab just anywhere here. Also, we don’t have the certified plant material to grow enough fruit to create 6,000 jobs during the next four years.” Newhouse concluded, “I expect we’ll grow at a rate near the middle of the range highlighted in the new study. And that’s still an impressive pace.”