Cultivating city's biotech workers

BioTechnical Institute's graduates join the state's sciences work force

January 17, 2007|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

The graduates wore no caps, no gowns. And few, if any, had parents in the sparse audience. More likely, their own children, some grown and towing the occasional grandchild, filled the seats.

But when their names were called during a ceremony last month, the same whoops of pride usually heard during high school and college graduations rained down from the auditorium bleachers.

"Go Ronnie! Go Ronnie!" a group of adults hollered from the back row as Ronald Bailey-El accepted a certificate declaring him a graduate of the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland (BTI).

He was one of 19 who made it through the intensive multimonth program, which held its graduation at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The group's members have earned six credits toward an associate's degree in applied science from Baltimore City Community College. But most importantly, they're now also qualified to work as lab technicians, officially able to record scientific data, grow cells and manipulate DNA.

Begun in 1998 by a Johns Hopkins geneticist, BTI offers tuition-free training and job placement help to city residents who qualify for the program. The goal is to give people - namely high school graduates interested in math and science - the skills to get ahead, while giving the state's growing biotechnology and other science industries a work force. Similar programs are cropping up nationwide, as states increasingly declare biotechnology a favored industry.

In the eight years since BTI was founded, the number of bioscience businesses in Maryland has grown 67 percent to nearly 370, according to a report released this month from trade organization MdBio. The number of jobs has risen 60 percent to 23,200.

Most employers are clustered in Montgomery County along the Interstate 270 corridor, but the concentration in the Baltimore region is expected to balloon during the next decade. Two biotechnology-focused business parks are under construction on opposite sides of the city.

"The life blood of these places is having a strong technician work force," said Walter Plosila, a former Marylander who's now vice president of the technology partnership practice at the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit research institution based in Ohio.

"Over the coming decades, [businesses] will increasingly be asking for the community to offer certificate or associate-degree training," Plosila said.

While such options exist in city and county colleges, they often cost more than some potential students are able to pay. That's where BTI comes in.

Thus far, 218 people have passed academic tests and interviews to be accepted into a free, nonprofit program, and 176 of them stuck with it to earn lab tech certification.

Most held full- or part-time jobs while getting their certifications, often working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., rushing home to greet their school-age children, then rushing back out again to biotech class at 6 p.m.

Of those, about 140 people - or 80 percent - found industry jobs within four months of completing their training. Their salaries, which include figures for both green and veteran workers, average about $25,000, though some make more than $40,000.

So far, graduates have taken positions with 29 employers, including Baltimore's Osiris Therapeutics Inc. in Fells Point, considered the first company to put a stem cell product on the market, and In Vitro Technologies Inc., whose chief executive, Paul M. Silber, has hired several BTI graduates for its labs in the Westview area.

For that, the institute has earned the praise of industry executives and been held up as a model by state officials. It has inspired grandmothers to go to college, fathers to aim higher, and in one family, saved two out of three siblings from dead-end jobs.

"This is different, it's more of a career," said Rainey Stewart, who used to bounce from job to job.

He graduated from the program with his sister Sabrina Garrett, four years ago. Since then, he's worked at the Johns Hopkins Genetic Research Core Facility and most recently back at BTI, where he's now an instructor.

"We call him the professor," pipes in Garrett, who's working in an import/export division of Grace Davison, a chemical company based in Columbia. At 26, she's a year younger than Stewart. An older brother - he's 30 - is enrolled in one of BTI's programs now.

The institute's first course was a lab technician training program now called BioPro. It's a 12-week intensive class that meets five days a week and requires a 100-hour internship in a working laboratory.

Its instructors expect students to have some basic science know-how. But too few applicants were meeting those requirements, so BTI added a "bridge program" called BioStart in February meant to prepare students for the science-heavy program to come.

About one in five students drops out of the program before graduation. Some have difficulty juggling their school and personal schedules, while others simply say biotech is not for them.

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