Abell Salutes: Biotechnical Institute of Maryland

June 1998 / Salutes / Workforce Development

Training the unskilled workers for the skilled biotech jobs.

“The only thing standing between many people who need jobs and the people who need skilled workers,” according to Dr. Margaret B. Penno, Associate Professor of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, “is the training.” With that as a credo, in 1997 Dr. Penno set out to facilitate such training and make the connections happen. Beneficiaries would be labor, management, the city, the state, and Maryland’s bioscience companies in need of qualified workers. These workers include local residents whose lack of education or skills have trapped them in jobs with limited advancement opportunity.

Dr. Penno had been observing in her labs the constant turnover of college-trained laboratory technicians; historically, they take the jobs to get the Hopkins experience, then, all too soon, move on to graduate or medical school. Serendipitously, a high-school graduate then working in a blue-collar position  asked Dr. Penno for the opportunity to be trained for a technical position in the lab. Although the position ordinarily required a college degree, Dr. Penno took the leap of faith and hired and trained the aspiring but academically underqualified applicant. The experiment turned out be a success. Dr. Penno reasoned that if there was one such motivated and promising worker at this level, there must be many. So it was that in 1997, with funding from The Abell Foundation, Dr. Penno established the Biotechnical Institute of Maryland, Inc., a non-profit organization with a mission to facilitate the technical instruction of workers through specialized curricula customized to specific company needs. In a joint effort with the Baltimore City Community College, Empower, Baltimore Management Corporation, and the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, a curriculum was custom designed to train 10 people for a local firm. In January the graduates began their new careers at Chesapeake Biotechnical Laboratories at salaries in the $20,000 range.

When the institute is fully operational and reaches it potential, it promises to be an integral part of the process that educates citizens of Baltimore and Maryland for the burgeoning biotech field now flourishing in the region.

According to Dr. Penno, “This program and excellent existing community college, four year, and graduate biotechnical programs support the work force and give hope to workers at the lowest level.”

Dr. Penno now says of the groundbreaking programming, “All we are attempting to do is to provide the skills to pay the bills. The skills in this case are highly technical, with plenty of room for personal growth. A high level of excellence is demanded of our students but the rewards are many.”

The Abell Foundation salutes Dr. Penno, the attempt, and its promise.