Job One: Getting People Hired

Michigan wineries work on staffing up for season

Fenn Valley Vineyards is hiring for tasting room associates and vineyard workers. (Photo courtesy of Fenn Valley/Tiberius Images)

Looking for work? There’s likely a Michigan winery nearby that would love a chance to speak with you.

“So many wineries are hiring right now,” says Emily Dockery of the Michigan Wine Collaborative, which has launched a campaign publicizing wine job openings at its website and via social media. “There’s a lot of wine jobs up for grabs right now.”

Any winery manager or owner can probably tell you all about it.

Fair Turnout
Black Star Farms on the Leelanau Peninsula scheduled a job fair in late April.

“Every year, in order to meet the increased numbers of tasting room guests, inn guests, a tremendous number of public events (like weddings) and reopening of our seasonal café, we need to double our workforce,” says Sherri Fenton, managing owner. “We typically have around 50 FTE equivalents and will hire up to 100 for summer and fall.”

Because of COVID restrictions, the staff was especially lean over the winter months. That meant existing staff had to do double duty in many cases, but Fenton says that would be hard to continue during the busy season.

Meanwhile, bookings for Black Star’s inn are steadily coming in.

“Last summer, since we offer a small 10-room inn within a short drive for many, we ran just shy of 100 percent capacity all summer and fall,” Fenton says. “It appears that the general public is ready to get back to a new normal, and bookings and requests definitely are indicative of this.”

With a need to hire more people than usual for positions like customer service representative, café server, chef, dishwasher, supervisor and others, the job fair provided prospective applicants with a chance to meet managers from all departments. The idea was to identify a position that matched their interests and qualifications and possibly result in being hired on the spot.

Because of tight competition and wanting to exceed the enhanced amount in earnings that laid-off workers are receiving in unemployment right now, Black Star has raised its pay rates for the season.

“Base pay rates range from $10 an hour to $20 an hour, plus tips, as are prevalent in the industry,” Fenton says. “The money is very good for those who want to work.”

While turnout for the job fair wasn’t as large as Black Star management had expected, they were able to hire for all departments.

Staffing Up for Service
Modales in Fennville was looking to grow from having eight part-time employees at the end of winter to as many as 25. But it’s been slow going.

“We posted our openings on multiple different platforms and we’ve only received about six or seven applications,” says recently hired Tasting Room Manager Bryan Shelton. “And by the time I was able to call them within 24 hours, at least three or four of them told me they already accepted another job elsewhere. The applicant pool is small.”

Opening in July 2019, the winery was barely able to get a full season under its belt before the pandemic hit. Still, early spring weekends have been successful even operating at reduced capacity, and Shelton is hopeful that students finishing up their college semesters and teachers who like to work part time during their summer breaks might help expand the applicant pool.

Modales management hopes to have most of the positions filled by the end of May. Otherwise, not being able to hire enough staff could affect the services they’ll be able to offer.

“Our brand is we make great wine and we want great service,” Shelton says. “We don’t want to make great wine and just have passable service.

“We may have to figure out what we can do and pare things down — not that that is our goal, but that is the Plan B if we can’t crack this nut and figure out how to get the number of people we need in here.”

Future Opportunities
Not far away, Fenn Valley Vineyards has been hiring for tasting room sales associates as well as for production. The winery employs about 65 people, split pretty evenly between full and part time, says Brian Lesperance, vice president of operations and winemaking at the Fennville winery.

(Photo courtesy of Fenn Valley/Tiberius Images)

Lesperance says the biggest challenge is finding quality candidates.

“We look for people who are a good culture fit — customer-centric, wine-loving people with solid communication skills,” he explains.

It’s possible to start in one position and grow into a meatier career-type role.

“We have people who have been here for 20-plus years who started off in the tasting room,” he says. “The sky’s the limit.

“Our long-term plan is for growth, so there will be ongoing opportunities for hard-working people who are passionate about wine and hard cider.”

The Long View
Tom Smith, extension specialist for Michigan State University Extension’s Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute, takes the long view as he works to help support development of a talent pipeline for the state’s grape and wine industry.

Tom Smith (left) with Bob Brengman at Brengman Brothers. (Photo courtesy of Tom Smith)

He was instrumental in developing a two-year certificate program for the wine and grape industry back in 2009, offered nationally through VESTA (Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance) and supported by the National Science Foundation.

“All of the courses have content online and students would have a live session each week with the professor,” Smith says. “It was a way to fill that need for the industry starting back in 2009 and continues today.”

The program offers three tracks — viticulture, enology (for winemakers) and wine business and entrepreneurship.

“One of the things we found is about half of students already had at least a bachelor’s degree,” he says. “The average age of students is early to mid-40s. About half are entrepreneurs, looking at getting into the business maybe starting their own vineyard or winery … we get a lot of students who just take courses; they may not be after a certificate.”

In 2017, the VESTA program expanded with apprenticeships, which Smith says coincided with the state’s Northwest Michigan Works! employment agency identifying Michigan’s craft beverage industry as one of the target industries for apprenticeships. With current grant funding, about 40 apprenticeships will be funded over the course of two years, including about 10 in the wine and grape industry.

It’s an opportunity for “students to get into the workforce right away,” Smith says. “It’s really their training program. And students take related technical instruction while they work.”

Various aspects of wine and grape industry training are offered at colleges around the state, including Northwestern Michigan College, Michigan State University, Ferris State University and Lake Michigan College, among others.

Students get hands-on experience at Lake Michigan College in Berrien County. (Courtesy photo)

At Lake Michigan College, students get hands-on experience by working to make wine for the college’s teaching winery.

“The winery is not actually owned by the college,” says Program Assistant Becca Sonday. “It is a separate legal entity affiliated with the college. Vintners partner with Lake Michigan College; Lake Michigan College provides space and equipment and education and training. That way we can operate a legal, commercial winery.

“We make wine to sell at the commercial winery, and we also contract with several wineries.”

A new Project GREEN 4-H project is placing students in two metro Detroit-area vineyard operations to expose them to vineyard management.

“Our vision is starting with youth and offering opportunities all the way through to people who have already been in the workforce or are transitioning from one job to another or maybe looking for something to do in retirement,” Smith says.

Employment opportunities in Michigan’s wine industry are expected to increase. (Photo courtesy of GR Noir)

He expects opportunity for employment in Michigan’s wine industry will continue to increase as the industry here expands with the growth of new cold-hardy grape varieties.

“Now you can grow grapes anywhere in the state, and I think we’re going to see the most expansion in and around the greater Detroit area,” Smith says. “There’s land and there’s population.

“Our traditional growing areas in the northwest and southwest part of Michigan still remain strong, but I think you’re going to see more growing in nontraditional areas like Southeast Michigan.”



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