Lab skills vital in city

Jobs: A little training could go a long way toward inner-city employment.

March 10, 2002|By Edward D. Miller | Edward D. Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Biotech is hot. Pick up the newspaper any day and success stories involving the marriage of biology and technology leap out at you. Breakthroughs in new drug products, vaccines and foods have become routine announcements.

Maryland is a leader in this fast-emerging field. Sixteen thousand people already work at 280 biotechnology companies in the state (50,000 employees if you include federal and university labs). The industry is expected to double in size in just five years.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's eastside biotech research park initiative illustrates how important this industry could become. His ambitious plan, which will result in more than $600 million of public and private investment just north of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions campus, will include housing, 2 million square feet of office space and will employ 8,000 people. That would make it one of the region's largest employers.

One-third of those people will be high school graduates working as lab technicians. These are good-paying jobs. Many of the technicians will be Baltimore residents from the city's Empowerment Zones, where jobs are scarce.

But how will they receive their training as lab techs? That is a problem already bedeviling educators and the biotech industry. There is a gap in our workforce training.

Local community colleges offer two-year degrees for biotechnicians and medical lab technicians. Many city residents, though, need to work while attending college.

Meanwhile, little attention has been devoted to how to quickly train high school graduates for what will be, over time, thousands of entry-level positions offered by research companies.

One promising approach has been launched by Dr. Margaret B. Penno, Cell Center director of the Johns Hopkins Genetic Resources Core Facility. She developed a short-term technician-training program housed in the Baltimore City Community College's Bard Building downtown.

It's an intensive four-hour-a-day, nine-week course that teaches lab techniques, such as how to grow cell cultures. There's also a three-week internship in a lab. So far, the program has graduated 83 students, most of whom have found biotech jobs. Many have been promoted to better-paying positions with more responsibility.

This is the only short-term, intensive specialty program for biotechnicians in the Baltimore area.

Yet, if the mayor's research park becomes a reality, a variety of targeted training courses will be essential to generate the needed reservoir of job-ready applicants for laboratories.

A number of community-based job training organizations could prepare potential workers by helping them obtain their GEDs and by supporting the training of students while in high school.

Such steps could create new pools of candidates ready for the kind of technical training they need to become a part of the biotech enterprise.

Penno's program developed out of her experience with Jean Smith, a young mother of three who had been making her living tending laboratory animals at Hopkins. The Dunbar High graduate yearned for more challenging employment and applied for a technician's job, although she lacked a college degree in biology or chemistry. Penno took a chance on her potential.

"She was so successful, I thought there must be other people out there like her," the scientist said.

A pilot program has turned into the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland Inc., with a staff of four, thanks to critical grants from the Abell Foundation. Students don't pay for the training, but to get in they must pass several academic exams, a manual dexterity test and a number of interviews. Twenty-four different Maryland bioscience organizations have hired students from the program, and companies are asking for more.

This is a workforce-training issue that hasn't been addressed by state and local government leaders. As the biotechnology revolution gathers momentum, demand for entry-level assistants will rise rapidly. The time to meet this need is now, before a lack of ready-to-work technicians discourages research companies from opening their labs here.

Programs such as Penno's will help fulfill the mayor's vision of an urban biotech park populated with skilled inner-city employees holding productive, well-paying jobs.

Dr. Edward D. Miller is dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

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