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 -- 43 small companies -- is projecting 10-fold growth in sales in the next five years. Community colleges are helping to train workers for these companies and for medical centers and laboratories.
"We hear story after story of people who could use technicians," said Carol Hoyle, director of the GBC's work force programs.
Local businesses have turned to community colleges for a short-term solution. Catonsville Community College has assembled a consortium of community colleges to help employers who want job-training courses for workers. The New Community College of Baltimore (NCCB) offers a two-year degree program in the life sciences to train students to be technicians.
But NCCB has difficulty attracting students. Only 40 are in the pipeline.
Most high school students have no interest in science or aren't aware of the career opportunities, said Tom Hooe, an NCCB biology professor. "We haven't been pushing kids to study math longer or take science."
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.