I recently attended the launch of the “Growing Futures” initiative – a career-connected learning initiative focused on Lodi’s wine industry. The initiative is led by the county’s first Agricultural Partnership Board and the Lodi Appellation Inclusion Collaborative, which is a group of individuals focused on diversifying the wine industry in San Joaquin County. What I saw there gave me a great deal of hope and optimism about the future of our region.

By most measures, agriculture is San Joaquin County’s most important industry, with wine production a core pillar of the industry. A report done for the California wine industry estimated that the San Joaquin County wine and grape industry has an economic impact of $2.4 billion and that there are around 14,000 jobs directly and indirectly involved.

But the industry faces a few challenges. First, many young people aren’t interested in wine and agricultural-related careers as historically-defined, perhaps in part because they are unaware of the different types of jobs available in the industry that require specific training and skill sets beyond traditional farm or field work and can provide family-sustaining incomes.

Second, the county faces a skills gap, and the wine industry’s demand for skilled labor in areas like engineering, hospitality, and agriculture business is outpacing supply. For San Joaquin County’s winemakers to continue to thrive, we must invest in career-connected learning, aligning our education system with the skills and knowledge necessary for a burgeoning career in our agriculture and natural resources.

Implementing career-connected learning, which integrates career-focused and academic education, can provide a valuable solution. By promoting such an approach, students not only gain skills that will prepare them for high-demand agricultural jobs, but also develop a profound understanding of our local industry’s nuances, all while boosting their academic achievement.

For wine industry leaders, this isn’t just about sustaining their industry – it’s about making it stronger, more diverse, and more inclusive.

 “We formed the Lodi Appellation Inclusion Collaborative AIC with a primary goal of increasing diversity and inclusion in the wine industry in our appellation and beyond,” said Rodney Tipton, LAIC Founder and co-owner of Acquiesce Winery. “We know that the most effective and sustainable way to do this is to begin by providing the proper education and exposure to young people from diverse backgrounds who are interested in our industry.”

To bridge the industry’s skills gap, we should turn our attention to models that have shown significant promise, such as the early college/career high school model. Early college high schools allow students to earn college credits while in high school, providing them with a competitive edge and a clear pathway to higher education. They offer a platform where hands-on learning and academic rigor are not mutually exclusive but complementary facets of a holistic education.

In North Carolina, the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA) has shown how powerful such programs can be. Through collaboration with local vineyards, students gain both classroom knowledge and on-site work experience. This early college program has been a success, with many graduates quickly finding gainful employment in the local wine industry

We have an opportunity to build a similar program here in San Joaquin County, in partnership with our prestigious local wineries and educational institutions. And the Growing Futures Initiative pilot announced recently – with Lodi USD, the Lodi Winegrape Commission, and San Joaquin Delta College – can provide a foundation to build on. As we learn from this, we believe our local universities like Delta can provide the academic backbone, with courses designed around agriscience, ornamental horticulture, and agriculture business, and more local wineries offering internships and work-based experiences that lend practical exposure to the industry.

“Our students are really enjoying their engagement with employers and their exposure to these opportunities so far,” shared Stacy Kahn, principal of Valley Robotics Academy, a partner in the Growing Futures initiative. “This program is so exciting because not only will it expose students to career opportunities that allow them to learn and earn at the same time, but they will also be taking college courses at Delta College in their career pathway of interest, earning them important credits for free. All of this is centered around a goal to put students on a pathway to success in a career they are passionate about that will provide them the means for earning and advancement in adulthood.”

Investing in career-connected learning, particularly through early college/career high schools and pathways, offers an opportunity to cultivate a skilled workforce that can step seamlessly into the roles our agricultural industry needs. It’s about preparing our youth not just for any job, but for fulfilling careers right here in San Joaquin County. It’s about ensuring that our local agricultural businesses, especially wine-growing industry, continue to thrive.

As we continue to celebrate San Joaquin County’s proud agricultural heritage, it’s time to raise our glasses to the future. We invite you to join us as we build on this momentum to identify more ways to invest in our youth and career-connected learning, sowing the seeds for the next generation of vintners, agronomists, and viticulturists.

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