Anderson and VanAusdle didn’t have any economic data to make the case to would-be donors – just Anderson’s informal survey and a gut feeling that the graduates would support an expanding industry. “We had 19 wineries at that time,” Anderson says. “We were talking about maybe preparing to have 50 in our area over the next 10 years, and that was just a SWAG – a simple, wild-ass guess.”
It was good enough for donors such as Jock Edwards, president of a local nonprofit. “It was pretty clear that [the wine industry] was on the rise, and the training and the job skills were transferable to immediate career opportunities,” Edwards says. His organization, the Sherwood Trust, gave the center two grants totaling $842,000, the largest private donation it received. The center also got funding from the Port of Walla Walla and the Washington Legislature.
Walla Walla Community College dedicated its $4.1 million Center for Enology and Viticulture in October of 2003. The school made a critical choice when it opened the program: It involved local industry from Day One.
Connecting Colleges With Local Industry
Early studies suggest that community colleges with close connections to local labor markets are the most successful at getting students into the workforce, says Michael Greenstone, director of the Hamilton Project, an economic-policy initiative at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
The data aren’t conclusive yet, but support for the idea is growing. In May, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a framework designed to help countries enhance their skills-training programs. The 109-page document describes the importance of partnerships with industry in areas ranging from curriculum design to apprenticeships.
“When employers are involved in designing curricula and delivering education programs at the post-secondary level, students seem to have a smoother transition from education into the labor market,” the OECD writes. “Workplace training also facilitates recruitment by allowing employers and potential employees to get to know each other, while trainees contribute to the output of the training firm. Workplace learning opportunities are also a direct expression of employers’ needs, as employers will be ready to offer opportunities in areas where there is a skills shortage.”
Today, there are many more employers in Walla Walla to offer those opportunities than there were in 2000. The change is reflected in the very landscape of the city, where green fields of spring wheat now share the landscape with the brown soil of Walla Walla’s young vineyards. Washington has become the third-largest wine producer in the country, and Walla Walla County has the highest number of wineries in the state, with well over 100.
Walla Walla didn’t escape the recession entirely. The county’s unemployment rate was 8.2 percent in March, in line with the national rate. But it wasn’t ravaged by the downturn, either – certainly not to the extent the rest of the country was. At its worst, unemployment in Walla Walla County, for which data are not seasonally adjusted, reached 9.2 percent. The rate for the country as a whole, on the other hand, climbed to 10.6 percent without seasonal adjustment. And today, neighboring Franklin, Benton, and Columbia counties have unemployment rates that are 1, 2, or more than 3 percentage points higher than Walla Walla’s.
Economists say that the wine industry deserves credit for the relative employment success of Walla Walla through the downturn. One economic-modeling firm recently estimated that the absence of the wine industry would have led to a period of economic stagnation that would have lasted from 1997 to at least 2020. The numbers tell the story: Wine-related jobs in the Walla Walla Valley region, which include work at hotels, restaurants, specialty retail, and entertainment dependent on the industry, grew from nearly 3,300 to 6,000 between the start of the recession in 2007 and 2011. To put it into better perspective, the percentage of the region’s jobs that are wine-related grew from 0.8 percent in 1997, before the industry took off and the college began its skills-training program, to 14.4 percent in 2011.
Graduates of the college’s skills-training program are occupying many of the new local wine-related jobs. Since 2002, 124 have earned associate in applied arts and sciences or associate in arts degrees, and 174 have received one-year certificates in enology or viticulture.
Not all of the program’s graduates responded to a recent alumni survey, but the 84 who did suggest that the program is very good at placing students within the wine industry.
Sixty-nine of the 84 are employed in the wine industry. The largest share – 40 graduates – are winemakers or assistant winemakers. Others found work in cellars, wine sales and promotion, vineyard management, and tasting rooms. More than 70 percent of those working in the industry are employed full time; Adecco, a job-placement firm, found that just 40 percent of U.S. college students are able to find full-time work in their chosen field.