It's the classic fable of the war being lost for the want of a nail.
But in this case, what is needed is laboratory and medical technicians to become the workhorses of an industry that
business leaders believe will drive Baltimore's economic growth in the next decade.
Medical institutions as large as Johns Hopkins Hospital and biotechnology companies with less than a few hundred employees say they are hunting for talented high school and college graduates who could fuel the life sciences industry. But what they often find are students ill-equipped for white lab coats and precision science.
A recent report by the Greater Baltimore Committee, a coalition of area business leaders, called the need sufficiently critical to threaten the survival of smaller biotechnology companies just as they enter a crucial stage in their development -- bringing their first products to market.
In addition, a large pool of workers will be needed to attract new businesses to the area and keep them growing, the report said.
The GBC and some politicians envision the life sciences -- which include the medical institutions, federal laboratories and biotechnology companies -- as the basis for Baltimore's economic future.
The fledgling biotechnology industry -- made up of 43 small companies, only a quarter of which made a profit last year -- is projecting 10-fold growth in sales in the next five years. And 75 percent of the companies expect to start making products during the period.
Community colleges are rushing to help train a work force for these fledgling companies as well as for medical centers and laboratories.
While the GBC cannot quantify the industry's need for the next decade, it is embarking on a survey to be completed in May that will do just that. It already is clear that Johns Hopkins Hospital needs 31 technicians and that Nova Pharmaceutical Corp., the American Red Cross and Liberty Medical Center each needs at least 10 more.
"We hear story after story of people who could use technicians," said Carol Hoyle, director of the GBC's work force programs. That shortage seems surprising given the current high unemployment rate and pay scales that range from $18,000 to $25,000.
Company officials say they aren't even picky. They will take anyone who can read, write, solve problems and has some small interest in science.
"Unfortunately, I find it is very difficult to find those types of people," said William P. Tew, chief executive and chairman of Chesapeake Biological Laboratories. "They haven't had proper preparation in the fundamentals."
Although Chesapeake normally gets hundreds of applicants for a lab technician opening, a simple test eliminates 90 percent, he said.
Chesapeake and other local businesses have turned to community colleges for a short-term solution. Catonsville Community College, for instance, has assembled a consortium of community colleges to help employers who want job-training courses for workers. And the New Community College of Baltimore (NCCB) offers a two-year degree program in the life sciences designed to give students the tools to be technicians.
But NCCB is having difficulty attracting students. Only 40 are in the pipeline -- about half the number the college would like to be turning out annually.
Most high school students have no interest in science or aren't aware of the career opportunities, said Tom Hooe, a NCCB biology professor. "We haven't been pushing kids to study math longer or take science," he said. And the small number who do tend to be channeled into careers that require bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees.
Mr. Hooe has joined the GBC and businesses to address the problem. Their vision is a public school system that fosters interest in science and math from the elementary school through a city high school dedicated to the life sciences. Outside of school, students would see institutions that encourage a fascination with science: the National Aquarium at Baltimore, the Maryland Science Center and the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration, which will start construction soon.
"We are going after a group of kids that have not been stimulated and have often been lost," Mr. Hooe said.
As a beginning, Mr. Hooe is working with Patterson and Dunbar high schools, where students will be offered courses, perhaps as early as next fall, to prepare them for jobs in the life sciences. Teacher training is expected to begin this summer.
The technical preparation would give students the option of going on to CCB's life sciences program or a four-year college. The idea, Mr. Hooe said, is to give students the opportunity for a good job directly out of school, but one which could lead to further advancement by earning a master's or doctoral degree. And some employers will pay for a full-time employee's education.
The GBC also is recommending creation of a quasi-public
corporation to ensure life sciences businesses have a steady supply of workers, from high school graduates to Ph.Ds. The corporation would be modeled after a similar Massachusetts organization that brings together educators, business people and government leaders.
Besides a lack of employees, Baltimore has no critical mass of employers right now to attract students to technical training.