Vicky Distance has neither a science nor technical background, but she does have an interest in the nuts and bolts of high-tech machinery. That curiosity, and the technical acumen she displayed on tests, may have landed her a career in the state's burgeoning biotechnology sector.
The East Baltimore resident is one of nine Empowerment Zone residents chosen from a pool of 117 applicants to be trained in laboratory and other technical skills for Chesapeake Biological Laboratories Inc. (CBL).
The program she'll be trained in and employed under is a novel venture among CBL, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Baltimore City Community College.
The aim: open up jobs in the booming high-technology sector -- which the state is banking on to fuel economic growth in the decade ahead -- to low-income residents who may not have the education required for entry-level high-tech jobs.
"I look at this more as a chance at a career, not just a job," said Distance during a break in one of the intensive four-hour training classes she attends Tuesdays through Saturdays at CBL.
Margaret B. Penno, an associate professor of medicine at Hopkins who helped design the training program, is bullish on the program as a bridge to jobs with career potential.
"The only thing standing between the people who need jobs and the people who need skilled workers is the training," she said.
"All we're trying to do is bring good people together with good jobs."
Empower Baltimore Management Corp., a nonprofit that oversees the distribution of federal block grants, awarded $54,000 to underwrite the training program.
CBL, whose new plant is in one Baltimore's three targeted Empowerment Zones, will get tax credits of up to $3,000 on wages paid to program trainees who are hired.
If it's successful, program organizers hope to duplicate it with another group of Empowerment Zone job candidates as additional jobs open up at CBL, said Karen L. Samelko, a quality assurance manager for CBL who helped design the training program.
Edith Brown-Johnson, an account executive at Baltimore's Office Employment Development, said the training program is a unique venture matching Empowerment Zone residents with well-paying high-tech jobs. The agency has placed 981 Empowerment Zone residents in jobs thus far.
The CBL program, launched in late September, also is unique in that training occurs at the job site rather than in a classroom, said Johnson. That element should help students learn skills faster.
Salary and benefit packages that await those who complete the program are higher than those Baltimore typically matches with Empowerment Zone job seekers, said Johnson.
After Distance and her eight classmates complete the training ,, program in January, they must pass a tough final exam: They'll be employed as lab technicians earning more than $20,000 annually. Initially they'll work at CBL's plant in Seton Business Park, but will eventually shift to the company's new production ,, plant near Camden Yards. It's scheduled to open early next year.
CBL, which employs about 60 people, expects the new plant to boost company staff to more than 80, said John T. "Jack" Janssen, chief financial officer of the company. Program trainees will be employed in the company's "clean rooms," where sterile batches of products are prepared and packaged.
The Baltimore-based CBL, which contracts with biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs needed for clinical trials or marketing, expects the $12.5 million plant to help it broaden and diversify its customer base.
"I like the idea of working in a laboratory," said Distance. "I'm not science-oriented, but the technical skills part of this really interests me."
There is a big difference between interest and ability, so screening was tough.
Penno at Hopkins developed several tests to find applicants who have the mental and technical acuity required for the jobs.
Program organizers also looked for candidates who had strong families -- an indicator of future success.
Thomas J. Little, a Baltimore City Community College instructor, designed a rigorous curriculum to cover the broad spectrum of ** technical skills needed to handle clean-room jobs, ranging from the proper operation and cleaning of syringe and vial fillers and other sensitive instruments, to maintaining proper records for customer and regulatory review.
As Dorrie Dendy can attest, the sheer breadth of information packed into the intensive training program means lots of study and homework, homework, homework. "Every night I have homework. This is like going to college. You have to stay very self-motivated," said Dendy.
Samelko at CBL is optimistic about the program's potential for building a stable work force at the new Baltimore plant. While biotechnology firms usually don't have trouble filling laboratory technician jobs, they do have trouble keeping them filled because of turnover.
"I'd like to see most of these students still working here in 10 years," said Samelko.
Pub Date: 11/28/97