Springboard to a Future
Date: December 2, 2013
Twelve years ago, Donna Dudley worked in a call center as a customer service representative. The job was unfulfilling and held no prospect for advancement. With two young children to support, Dudley says, “I didn’t have the luxury of going back to college.”
When she came across a newspaper article about the BioTechnical Institute of Maryland, though, Dudley’s resignation turned to optimism. Located in Baltimore, the tuition-free program trained motivated high school graduates to become lab associates and connected them to careers in the burgeoning biotechnology industry. “It sounded like something I would be interested in doing,” Dudley says.
Once accepted into the rigorous program, Dudley learned how to grow and harvest cells, follow standard laboratory procedures and meet instructors’ high standards for clean room gowning and other protocols. Dudley also discovered something about herself: “That I had the potential to make my future what I wanted it to be.”
Founded 15 years ago by Margaret “Sue” Penno of the Johns Hopkins Genetic Resources biorepository and All Children’s Hospital biorepository, the institute has lifted economic and social barriers to meaningful careers for hundreds of Baltimore area residents.
Inspired by Jean Smith, a high school graduate she had hired and trained as a lab technician, Penno envisioned the first class for a local company “where high school graduates would learn how to prepare injectable medicines that meet the highest quality standards.”
At the time, it was a risky endeavor. Her theory—that qualified high school graduates without college degrees can master the basic skills required of a lab technician—was rarely tested, Penno says. Since then, the institute’s success has rewarded her leap of faith.
Today, BTI—housed in a former commercial lab on the East Baltimore waterfront—is regarded as a model of innovative workforce development in Maryland and across the United States. To date, nearly 300 program graduates have filled lab technician jobs in scores of universities, hospitals and life science companies. Johns Hopkins alone employs 25 percent of program alumni.
What’s more, a BTI certificate gives a significant boost to graduates’ earning power. According to a recent study by the Baltimore Workforce Funders Collaborative, almost 80 percent of BTI graduates are placed. Their position titles, which include lab technicians and research technicians, offer significant wage increases and career opportunities. The advantages to graduates accumulate over time as well. Ninety percent of BTI participants who land lab associate positions work full time and receive benefits, the study found.
Over 15 years, many of the BioTechnical Institute’s earliest graduates have risen through the ranks to leadership positions in their workplaces. Dudley, for example, is now facility coordinator in a Johns Hopkins clinical research lab that produces vaccines for cancer therapy trials. She is responsible for purchasing and maintaining equipment and supplies from outside vendors.
Before he enrolled in the lab associate program last spring, Stewart Bullock had no such prospects for a biotech career, much less a chance to advance. After high school, Bullock took college courses as finances allowed, seeking lab technician positions to earn his tuition. Without a college degree, though, would-be employers considered him unqualified for entry-level jobs in the biotech field. “This lab associate training program is out to defeat the Catch-22,” Bullock says.
BTI’s services have expanded under Executive Director Kathleen Weiss to include BioSTART, a 12-week prep course for BTI participants who lack the basic academic skills required to complete the lab associate program. She also brought on a part-time caseworker to manage crises students routinely face, such as eviction and domestic abuse. “Our goal is to stabilize things sufficiently for students to complete the program and get connected to employment,” she says.
Securing the stability of BTI also preoccupies Weiss, a seasoned grant writer who must constantly appeal to charitable foundations, online fundraising communities and private corporations for support. She, along with BTI faculty and staff, has also developed customized workshops for lab professionals that generate income from clientele in the biotech industry.
It’s hard work, but for BTI and its supporters, inspiration abounds in the stories of program participants, such as Rainey Stewart, the institute’s senior lab technician and BioSTART math teacher. Although he had always excelled in math and science, the 1997 high school graduate couldn’t afford college and had held down a string of jobs in retail, the fast food business and a bakery before enrolling in the training program in 2002.
For Stewart, the program has meant the difference between merely surviving and thriving. “To be able to go back to the things I love excites me every day,” he says.