VanAusdle says that those who aren’t working in their degree field had elected not to. “All of our students who desired employment in the wine industry have been able to find jobs in the industry,” he said in an e-mail. And more than half opted to reside in the valley after graduation.
Their inclination to stay reflects the close ties between the wine industry and the college. Nicholas Velluzzi, then a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Washington and now director of institutional planning and assessment at Walla Walla Community College, found that the success of the training program relied on just those connections. Through 60 interviews with local producers and former and current students in 2007, Velluzzi concluded that the Center for Enology and Viticulture was effective in functioning as a “labor market information clearinghouse”; in other words, establishing direct connections to jobs.
“An overwhelming majority of students enter the industry through their affiliation with the center,” he writes. “Job openings are rarely posted in local classifieds or on Internet job boards but are announced informally by word-of-mouth, which suggests the importance of social networks and the highly localized nature of the circulation of labor market information.”
The program at Walla Walla doesn’t just have those ties; it was built on them. Training workers whom local winemakers would be likely to hire was at the heart of the college’s plan from the beginning, and winemakers were involved in everything from helping to design the building that houses the program to writing the curriculum. “They wanted to make sure that it was skill-based, that it was practical and really concrete,” Anderson says. The college offers classes on weather for viticulturists, pesticide licensing, and winery-operations management, and has a significant hands-on component. Students start the year during “crush,” or the grape harvest period, by working in the fields. Not only do they get to know potential employers from the start but they also come back into the classroom with a “pretty good sense if that’s what they want to do,” VanAusdle says.
The way the Walla Walla wine industry took off – and transformed the city in the process – wouldn’t have happened to the same extent without the enology and viticulture program. “Wineries don’t just pop up without having people who can do the work,” says Arum Kone, a regional labor economist at the Washington State Employment Security Department. “I think [the program has] had a pretty amazing impact in terms of looking at capital that’s being invested in the valley.”
Karl Storchmann, an economics professor at New York University who has studied the region’s wine industry, agrees. Even though many of the grapes used to produce the wine come from the nearby Columbia and Yakima valleys and much of the wine is shipped for consumption elsewhere, “The human capital is located in Walla Walla, thanks to [the] enology center,” he said in an e-mail. “I am sure Walla Walla would look very different from now [without] the center.”
More than half of U.S. employers reported having trouble filling critical positions in 2010 because of a lack of available talent, one of the highest proportions among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. If the Walla Walla model is scalable, it could help close that gap.
A Vine Grows in Umpqua
The evidence that the model can be applied outside of Washington state is nestled along the North Umpqua River in Douglas County, Ore.
Douglas, which had long relied on the timber industry, was hit harder by the recession than most places in the United States. Non-seasonally adjusted unemployment climbed to 17.7 percent in March of 2009, nearly double the national rate at the time. The economic woes were enough that the area was considered a “recovery zone”– a place with significant poverty, unemployment, home foreclosures, or general distress.
Just before the recession hit, Umpqua Community College, located just north of Roseburg, in Douglas, began studying how it could implement a program closely modeled on Walla Walla’s. The wine industry in southern Oregon was slowly growing, much like southeastern Washington’s in the late 1990s. There were a few dozen wineries in the Umpqua area, and the college wanted to be the one to train their workers. And unlike the Walla Walla program’s founders, Umpqua had a solid economic reason to believe that the program would succeed. An economic impact study from 2007 estimated that $115 million in additional income and 5,000 new jobs would be added to the region if the program could launch.
Umpqua Community College established its wine program in the fall of 2008. But Umpqua also wanted a physical center like the one on Walla Walla’s campus and, somewhat counterintuitively, found an opportunity in the recession to get it.
After a local lawyer contributed $800,000 to the wine institute to get the project off the ground, capital began flowing. The wine center received more than 200 individual gifts that generated $2.5 million. The college raised the rest of the money for the $7 million center through Recovery Zone Bonds, which were created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to finance projects with economic development outcomes in distressed areas. With the funding in place, construction on the facility was completed in December 2011.
Umpqua’s version of Walla Walla’s program also hints at how the model may be expanded. Unlike its Washington neighbor, the Oregon college offers distance learning, which extends the college’s reach into nearby counties. Chris Lake, director of the college’s Southern Oregon Wine Institute, hosts weekend labs that give the distance-learning students the hands-on time they need to practice the craft.
Like Walla Walla’s, Umpqua’s students have their own wine label. But Umpqua also planned its wine center so that just one-third of its production capacity is devoted to student use. The remaining two-thirds is leased to alumni to make what Lake calls a “business incubator,” in which graduates use the facilities to bottle and sell their own wines.
“This will be the catalyst [that] southern Oregon’s burgeoning wine industry needs to spark the region’s economic resurgence,” the institute’s website optimistically proclaims.
Roseburg has yet to see the economic benefits that Walla Walla enjoys. Unemployment remains close to 12 percent in Douglas County. The region’s wines have not received the national acclaim that those of their neighbors to the north did, which Lake says was a major driver of Walla Walla’s economic success. “We’re still 10 years behind where Walla Walla is,” he says. But he’s hopeful.