Key growth industry lacks just one thing: workers

While Maryland has attracted the biotech industry to the state, it has been less successful readying a work force for it.

November 29, 2005|By TRICIA BISHOP | TRICIA BISHOP,SUN REPORTER

The teenagers filed into the Ellicott City laboratory, slapped on safety goggles, whipped out notebooks and peered expectantly at their instructor, who promptly delivered directions that sounded as if they were in a foreign language.

Teacher Cindy Coffman tossed around technical terms - such as "GFP samples," "caustic reagents" and "isolated proteins" - like confetti, eventually declaring that something needed to be vortexed "right away!" And the dutiful group soon did, with barely so much as a quizzical glance.

The success of this Howard County Public Schools biotechnology academy, and efforts like it to create future forensic scientists, researchers and drug developers, will in part determine Maryland's success in sustaining its place in the larger biotech industry.

Like many other states, Maryland sees biotech - the use of living organisms such as cells to make various products and drugs - as its next great hope for economic growth, due in part to the state's government labs and its concentration of hundreds of companies already creating the next generation of medicines. But many industry experts, and even optimistic government officials themselves, fear the state has been quicker to identify biotech as a growth industry than it has been to prepare a potential work force for it.

Of the industries in which young people profess interest, biotechnology ranks pretty low.

"Part of the problem is that people don't really know about it," Coffman said. "Considering how big an industry it is in the state, people ought to know."

Named two years ago by President Bush as one of 14 high-growth industries needing job training, biotechnology is among the fastest-expanding fields in the country.

That's particularly so in Maryland, which has a concentration of about 300 such companies along the Interstate 270 corridor and three life-science business parks under development. Two of them are in Baltimore and are expected to add more than 10,000 jobs to the area in the next decade.

But poor public relations within the industry, a dearth of coordinated training efforts and weak understanding of available biotech jobs and their education requirements have led few to choose it as a career path.

"The bioscience industry in Maryland is in dire need of a trained work force," said Gary Coleman, education director at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, a 20-year-old state-established research and training center. UMBI sponsored a conference this month in Rockville, Coleman said, to "find out what employers want and how we can give it to them."

Among the initiatives discussed were improving communication and partnerships between industry and academia, paying student tuition and intensifying efforts to get the word out that people don't have to have doctoral degrees to work in biotech (though it often helps).

The industry employs scientists, lawyers, information technology specialists, media relations experts, salespeople, accountants, business leaders, lab workers and janitors. And though their efforts go toward curing disease, vaccinating against AIDS and bolstering the nation's food supply, the industry is often overlooked.

"We need to create job envy for biotech, make biotech the job you want to go to," said Collins Jones, who coordinates a biotechnology program at Montgomery College. "Because it's not right now."

Such discussions have been going on across the country over the past few years as states increasingly identify biotechnology as a key economic driver. But some said Maryland - which consistently ranks among the nation's top biotech hubs - has been slow to develop solutions.

"Massachusetts, California and North Carolina have been doing very competitive things for a long time," said UMBI President Jennie Hunter-Cevera.

In 1997, when Hunter-Cevera was in California, she helped the state implement an at-risk kids biotech program where companies sponsored students through college, paying their tuition and ensuring jons for new graduates.

Massachusetts launched an $8 million BioTeach campaign last year that promises to equip all of the state's public high schools with lab equipment and biotech teacher training by 2010. And North Carolina State University in Raleigh plans to open a $36-million Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center in January 2007.

"It's all about being exposed to it early," said Donna Dimke, senior director of human resources at Human Genome Sciences, a Rockville drugmaker that routinely gives tours to high school students and sets up internships for some.

Aris Melissaratos, the state's secretary of business and economic development, said the concern is overstated. He called Maryland's biotechnology work force among the best in the nation. "We're always our own worst critic," he said.

Still, the Governor's Workforce Investment Board has a 47-member bioscience committee studying the issue. Among its charges will be tying together the state's many programs and making each aware of the others.

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