Brain drain? Put a cork in it

Premium package: Owner Russell Hearn holds court during a fact-finding tour Wednesday inside Mattituck's Premium Wine Group facility.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Don’t whine when you can wine.

That was one of the big ideas Wednesday, when a select group of educators, hospitality professionals and economic-development experts – each with a particular interest in addressing Long Island’s infamous “brain drain” – toured several East End winemaking facilities.

Arranged by the Long Island regional office of the Workforce Development Institute, the field trip was designed to help insiders understand the workforce needs and career opportunities inherent to the Island’s burgeoning wine industry – information they can share with students and others who might not know that hundreds of good-paying jobs are available in eastern Suffolk County right now, with hundreds more ripening on the vine.

Rosalie Drago: Employment as a destination.

To be sure, the tour was not focused only on low-hanging fruit. While eastern vineyards do need farmhands to harvest grapes and otherwise maintain crops – “especially with the political climate right now,” noted one winemaker – there are career paths aplenty in the rapidly expanding wine business, with needs ranging from HVAC mechanics to accountants to chemists, and salaries flowing well into the six-figure range.

“There are jobs here that require no degree, and jobs that require advanced degrees,” noted Workforce Development Institute Regional Director Rosalie Drago. “This industry is literally for everyone.”

The WDI, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing and keeping good-paying jobs across New York State, arranged the tour – which included stops at the Sparkling Pointe winery and One Woman Winery, both in Southold – at the behest of Albany’s main economic-development engine, Empire State Development, which had been contacted by the Long Island Wine Council.

The Riverhead-based Wine Council – a not-for-profit advocate for the East End’s 200-plus wineries, vineyards, restaurants, lodges and transportation-related businesses – got the ball rolling to address the needs of “a growing industry that has a lot of different employment demands,” according to LIWC Executive Director Ali Tuthill.

“We need to identify stronger pipelines to get talent out here and make sure greater Long Island is aware that there is this bustling industry that presents huge career opportunities,” Tuthill told Innovate LI. “This is a first step toward that.”

While the Long Island wine industry is not struggling, per se, to fill jobs, there are critical job openings now and more to come, according to the executive director, who suggested a “growing significance” to the idea of promoting wine-based career opportunities on the East End.

Barrels of fun: Deep inside Premium Wine Group.

“We’re seeing the industry become less seasonal, so the need for more permanent work staff is growing,” Tuthill noted. “Also, as the wineries become more successful and the quality of the wines elevates, there’s more attention.

“A lot of wineries are finding the need for different types of staff, outside of the tasting room,” she added. “You need vineyard management staff, chemists working in their labs, marketing professionals, business professionals – it’s becoming really diverse in terms of need, so we must cast a wider net in trying to recruit talent.”

Workforce diversity was on display at the tour’s first stop, Mattituck’s Premium Wine Group, a sprawling contract winemaking facility designed to provide an economical alternative to winemakers who can’t, or don’t want to, assume huge operational expenses.

Owner Russell Hearn led the group – including representatives of ESD, the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development & Planning, LaunchPad Huntington, Eastern Suffolk BOCES and the St. Joseph’s College and Nassau Community College hospitality programs, among others – through Premium Wine Group’s laboratory and bottling operations, plus its barrel and tank rooms, where upwards of 250,000 gallons of vino are in production at any given time.

Russell’s wife, Susan Hearn, owns Suhru Wines, one of Premium Wine Group’s local producers. She outsources her fruit from vineyards in the Long Island and Finger Lakes regions and, thanks to PWG’s shared equipment and services, has no particular employment needs of her own; Suhru is a two-person operation, with occasional part-time help for sales and events.

But Hearn has seen firsthand the needs of other regional producers, and they are growing.

“I’m very well aware of the needs of the other producers here,” she said Wednesday. “There are many, for trained production staff, for salespeople, for accounting people.

“And there’s definitely a need for farmhands, especially with the political climate what it is at the moment,” Hearn added. “They’re having a harder time finding people to fill those positions.”

That’s sure to perk the ears of several of the tour-takers. Phil Rugile, director of LaunchPad Huntington, said even from 50 miles away, his co-working facility sees an opportunity to help promote both tourism and employment in Wine Country.

Bright future: Hearn says Premium Wine Group’s employment roster may soon double.

“This all falls within manufacturing, which is one of our main focuses,” Rugile said. “I’m going to be working with the corporate education group at Stony Brook University to create a communications method for manufacturing of all types, and this would definitely fall in with that.”

Matthew Kapell, East End projects specialist with Suffolk’s economic development office, noted that “agriculture is very important to the East End and to [County Executive Steve Bellone], and there is the possibility here for the creation of plenty of jobs,” while Felicia Fleitman, founder of Westbury-based recruiting firm Savvy Hires, was jazzed about the idea of focusing her startup’s self-styled internship collective on Wine Country.

“Savvy Hires’ turnkey internship program partners with growing industries to develop pipeline hiring initiatives and proactive recruitment strategies,” Fleitman noted. “We need to demonstrate that the wine region is not only awesome to visit, but to work in.

“You think about tourism and you think about the sommeliers, but scientists can work out here, too, and have a beautiful and incredible life making wine,” she added. “There are huge opportunities to grow entire careers here, in roles where they can become world-renowned experts in wine.

“How cool is that?”

Developing “more established internship programs” is definitely on Tuthill’s radar, along with splashier events to promote Wine Country careers.

“If it’s determined that a job fair would be worthwhile, then absolutely,” the LIWC exec said.

That harkens to one of the main strategic points emerging from Wednesday’s tour, what Drago dubbed “employment as a destination.”

“As much as we think about the tourism side of ‘destination,’ we have to look at employment destinations, so potential employees look at the region as a place to develop their career pathways and make a life,” the WDI regional director said. “I definitely didn’t know that HVAC, mechanical and chemistry jobs, with earnings potential between $80,000 and $110,000, were part of this industry.

“And I’m in the workforce business,” Drago added. “So teachers, guidance counselors, parents and the emerging workforce probably have no idea.”


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