10 ways wineries can retain younger workers

Nicole Smartt is co-owner and vice president of Petaluma-based Star Staffing.

NICOLE SMARTT, BY NICOLE SMARTT

Wineries across the nation are having a difficult time attracting and retaining their ideal workers — Generation X, millennials and even Gen Y, just now turning 21.

Though it seems like a sexy industry with great perks, some of the problem may lie in the fact that many wineries are family-owned and -operated. They don’t have the man- or womanpower to run a successful social program branding them as a great place to work. So instead they rely upon word of mouth and traditional advertising.

And there’s simply a shortage of qualified workers in general. Hospitality, administrative, management, laboratory, vineyard, cellar, mechanic and maintenance positions are all difficult to fill — full- and part-time positions.

There are societal shifts that feed into the dearth of candidates too. Traditionally, vineyard workers have continued across generations, but that is changing now as current fieldworkers age out and their children opt for higher education or just jobs outside of agriculture.

Jobs inside wineries have their hurdles to overcome as well. In the tasting room, for example. employees not only pour wine but also must become adept at using the point-of-sale system. And when things are slow, they’re likely asked to help clean the place or perform certain administrative tasks. That doesn’t necessarily sit well with millennial, Gen X and Y workers who are often attracted to a more fast-paced environment.

Because wineries are often located in places that are highly desirable, housing can be a problem. In Sonoma County, the median home value is $575,000, and rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city, averages $1,740 a month. Napa is much the same with one-bedroom apartments going for $1,790 per month. To buy a home in Napa will set you back about $573,300.

It’s not easy then to pay workers a living wage that allows them to work in the areas in which they live. They’re faced with long commutes or dorm-room-like living situations — not that attractive to young adults who are ready to get out in the world earning money and living like grownups.

Part of being a grownup is making sure there’s room for advancement at your place of work. That, too, is difficult at small companies and many wineries fall into that category. The large wineries with national or global reach can offer advancement through the ranks, and that goes a long way in retaining good employees.

Flexibility and time off to pursue outside interests or volunteer for causes they care about is important to young workers. Smaller places often require their employees to work more hours and often times don’t have the resources to reward hard work financially.

The wine industry can be a more traditional-type of employer, often not allowing employees to work from home or work flexible hours. This may result in them leaving quickly for greener pastures. When that happens, the outcome can be hiring too quickly to fill a void, without completing due diligence.

When it comes right down to it, wineries are still a desirable place to work. Make sure your message is always, “We’re hiring, and we’re a great employer!” And do all that you can to make the second part of that statement the truth.

What can be done?

  1. Put a referral program in place for employees and even extended to guests who come into the tasting room or visit you online. Get creative with the types of bonuses. Wine comes to mind or, perhaps, an invitation to exclusive events at the winery. Maybe a stay at a nearby B&B.
  2. Consider offering an employee loyalty program based on years of service, or a retention bonus, if you will. You could offer a bonus to seasonal workers who complete the season.
  3. Allow work-from-home options when you can, and if there’s no good reason why a position needs to be 9 to 5, ask your employee if s/he would prefer another arrangement.
  4. Assist with housing if possible. John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards and Winery in Santa Rosa has about a dozen farmworker families who pay a subsidized rate to live on his properties. If housing is not possible, assist with commuting prices. Pay for bridge or tolls or offer a gas card.
  5. Take a day to visit local restaurants, hotels, or retail establishments to chat with staff. In doing so, you may identify potential talent. Invite them to the winery!
  6. Use word of mouth. Encourage tasting room staff to let guests know the winery is hiring.
  7. Use your web and social sites. Consider adding a video of one more employees talking about what they do at the winery and why they enjoy it so much. Share that video on social too.
  8. Speaking of social, when there are slow moments in the tasting room or in the office, let your staff help you market the business. They have great ideas and energy. They’ll enjoy it and you may find you reap unexpected rewards.
  9. Start reaching out to young adults as early as high school. Offer internships and work experience opportunities when you can. Weekend and summer jobs could transition seamlessly into more permanent situations after graduation.
  10. Send workers home every night with a bottle of wine. It’s one way to say, “you’re like family to us” and it’s a sure-fire way to gain loyalty. One firm sends workers home with a case of beer every Friday. And it works; their turnover is low.