They learn to succeed without degrees

Biotech industry looks beyond college for staffers

May 12, 2002|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

As Maryland's biotechnology industry grows, its doctorate-laden companies and research institutions are beginning to do something rarely considered just a few years ago.

They're hiring handfuls of people without college degrees - and, in some cases, no scientific experience - to work in laboratories and manufacturing plants. The fledgling trend appears to be taking hold because of a shortage of biotech workers and the maturation of an industry that once just researched drugs. Now it's also making them.

The result is that Terry Griffin, previously a stay-at-home mother, now works sterilizing beakers and other equipment used in experiments at In Vitro Technologies Inc. in Baltimore County. Former 7-Eleven clerk Gary Stevenson catalogs and stores cells used in experiments at the Johns Hopkins University. And at Baltimore's Osiris Therapeutics Inc., former youth counselor Derek Shepherd runs chemical staining tests to determine the characteristics of cells used to regenerate damaged muscle, cartilage or bone.

None has a college degree. All do jobs formerly done by more educated employees.

"It's definitely a life-changing experience, if only because this is something you want to do," said Shirley Washington, who - like Griffin - makes about $11 an hour sterilizing laboratory equipment at In Vitro and aspires to move up. "I was always told, `If you want to do that [work in a lab], you can't without a Ph.D."

The BioTechnical Institute of Maryland, which offers a 12-week bioscience training course, was begun in 1998 by a Johns Hopkins geneticist with a handful of grants, has trained and placed at least 67 workers. Labworx, a new Baltimore program funded by government and private grants, has 11 students and was scheduled to place its first two graduates into jobs by this week after a six-month course. Paul Laurence Dunbar High School is revamping its curriculum to better ready students for biotech college courses as well as careers.

But if a biotech park planned for East Baltimore is to become a reality, the city must find and train far more workers. "It's our job to make sure those businesses we entice to move into that biopark can feel confident" about finding employees, said Karen L. Sitnick, director of the city's Office of Employment Development.

The challenges to training and placing high school-educated workers, she acknowledges, are formidable. Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development boasts that the state has one of the highest proportions of doctoral scientists and engineers in the nation. At the same time, Baltimore's public school system estimates its high school dropout rate at 45 percent. The rate soars to 71 percent when magnet high schools, which draw students from all areas of the city for a specialized curriculum, are not included, according to the school system.

Training programs to turn high school students into biotech workers are limited. While Baltimore City and Harford community colleges both offer programs, some students can't afford them.

Program threatened

The BioTechnical Institute is a free program funded through grants from organizations such as the Abell Foundation and the Open Society Institute. But it faces the prospect of losing at least part of a city subsidy for its classroom and lab space at Baltimore City Community College because of city budget constraints.

What's more, many employers are accustomed to requiring bachelor's degrees for most entry-level biotech positions, a requirement Sitnick and others feel isn't always necessary. And preliminary results from a study commissioned by Sitnick's office show the job-growth potential for bioscience workers with no more than a high school education may be more limited than some officials think.

Edward D. Miller, chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine, estimated in a recent Sun editorial that the businesses in the planned biotech park adjacent to Hopkins' medical campus ultimately would employ 8,000 people. About one-third of them, he wrote, would be high school graduates working as lab technicians.

The study commissioned by Sitnick's office, scheduled to be finished at the end of next month, shows that only 12 percent to 15 percent of the current 11,000 bioscience workers in the city and four nearby counties have less than a bachelor's degree. Annually, the study estimates, job growth and turnover would result in 160 to 250 openings for high school-educated workers each year.

Consultant Duc Duong, who formerly ran the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center in Montgomery County and is co-author of the study, said the estimate presumes annual industry job growth of 5 percent.

Bioscience jobs "require a highly skilled and highly educated work force," Duong said. "The opportunity for high school graduates or less are a little bit more limited. [They are] not as many as people expected."

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