For quality workers, start with the young Companies are searching for help in the lower grades

October 02, 1991|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

Nova Pharmaceutical Corp. is looking for a few good men and women to fill positions at their growing company. But it's not as simple as it sounds. In fact, Nova, which researches and develops new drugs and drug delivery systems, is so concerned about the supply of qualified workers that the firm is prospecting for future job applicants at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Curtis Bay.

Nova, which has been in business for eight years, has adopted the school in an effort to expose the students to some of the jobs available at the company.

"We want to get students worked up at the 7th and 8th grade level so they go into high school focused on taking chemistry and biology, not because they have to, but because they are excited about the field. They then become the scientists of tomorrow," said Linda Harned, director of Human Resources for Nova.

Even as the recession has forced companies in areas such as defense to lay off workers, Nova and other businesses in the life science area find themselves constantly in search of skilled technical workers.

Ms. Harned said that of the 200 full-time employees at Nova, about 140 of them work in research and development. She is charged with finding chemists and biologists to conduct sophisticated drug testing.

The life sciences umbrella covers businesses and institutions that develop pharmaceuticals, conduct disease-related research and are involved in health and the biotechnology field.

Sixteen of the region's top 50 employers are in the life sciences field, including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Health System, which between them employ 28,000 workers.

A 20-member task force was created by the Greater Baltimore Committee to identify new areas of employment growth for the region. That task force concluded that the life science area has the potential to create thousands of jobs by the year 2000.

However, unless Marylanders are trained in at least the basics of math and science there won't be enough labor to go around.

"We recognize this is a growing industry, but if it is to grow there has to be a trainable work force or companies will go elsewhere," said William Tew, chairman of Chesapeake Biological Laboratories Inc., a pharmaceutical manufacturing company in the Seton Industrial Park in Baltimore.

Mr. Tew said he offers production-related jobs that range in salary from $16,000 to $20,000 a year. But 90 percent of the people who show up for interviewing and testing at his company failed to have basic reading and math skills.

"For people with a high school education, we can offer a career with full benefits if they can simply do some basic stuff," he said.

Although Mr. Tew said the need for technical workers in the life science area isn't critical yet, it's not a problem employers or the state can ignore.

"I don't think the problem is acute yet but we have to find some solutions," he said.

Mr. Tew and Ms. Harned have agreed to be part of a smaller task force put together by the GBC. The GBC has been given a $10,000 grant from the state Department of of Economic and Employment Development to explore ways to train students for life science-related jobs and help employers find qualified people already in the work force.

"Employers are frustrated because they can't find entry level people with basic science and math skills and they are not looking for rocket scientists," said Carol Hoyle, director of higher education for the GBC.

A study done for the first time last year by the Center for Nursing and Allied Health Careers found there was a severe shortage of people to work in the rehabilitation therapies, radiology, and medical records. For example, the statewide vacancy rate for physical therapists was 25.7 percent, and 24.3 percent of all radiation therapist jobs went unfilled in 1989. High turnover rates also compound the problem.

"Personnel shortages seem to be increasing in severity for most allied health professions," the study concluded.

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