Upskill to meet quantum workforce challenges

 Obtaining hands-on experience can help you land a job in the quantum industry 

Emerging technologies such as quantum and artificial intelligence have a growing demand for workers and seek individuals who can enter the field, learn new skills, and rapidly grow their knowledge base. “Upskilling” existing workers who have some of the needed skills is the fastest way to grow the pool of workers with relevant skills. Despite the early stage of many applications, the quantum industry needs individuals with a variety of backgrounds and expertise—from physics and materials to product engineering and software development. 

Jake Douglass jumped into the quantum industry a mere five years ago. Today, he’s the Quantum Business Development Lead at Sandia National Laboratories, Vice Chair of QED-C’s Workforce Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), and the Quantum Systems Accelerator Workforce team, where he helps run a high school summer camp that teaches quantum concepts. 

What was a surprise to Douglass when he entered the quantum field was how multi-disciplinary it is. “Quantum pulls from several fields including physics, electrical engineering, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, and more to create itself. That’s something that isn’t well understood or appreciated from those outside of the field. Another amazing aspect of quantum is that the amount of private capital and government funds that have poured into the field over the past 5 years,” Douglass added. 

Douglass finds that there are a growing number of advances in the quantum industry today that depend on a diverse quantum workforce. “The industry is reaching the point where systems are being developed. Workers are already needed to run and maintain those systems. We’re seeing a shift from five years ago, when you pretty much had to have a PhD. Today, less than half the job listings require that. There are a lot of opportunities for upskilling at the technician and bachelordegree levels.” 

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee recently held a hearing as part of the reauthorization effort for the U.S. National Quantum Initiative Act of 2018. Dr. Celia Merzbacher, QED-C Executive Director, testified at the hearing and spoke to quantum workforce needs going forward, “There is a need for skilled quantum workers at every level and with a range of knowledge and skills. With increased investments in university research, the number of graduates with advanced degrees and relevant experience, knowledge, and skills is growing. However, demand for quantum-ready workers continues to outpace supply, especially in engineering fields and increasingly for specialized technicians.” 

“As industry shifts from R&D to production, there is a growing demand for engineers who are experienced in product development and for technicians with hands-on experience using photonic, vacuum, and cryogenic equipment,” Merzbacher added. 

How to Upskill? 

“Because it is so multi-disciplinary, it’s been interesting watching universities launch cross-disciplinary quantum programs,” said Douglass. “How do you create a unified program that doesn’t really fit the old model? We are seeing new programs arise where we might not have expected them, with several coming from partnerships with industry, providing hands-on access to quantum’s complex hardware and materials.” 

Here are some tips for those interested in moving into a career in quantum. Upskilling starts by learning basic quantum concepts—know what a qubit is, as well as entanglement and superposition. Understand how the skill set that you currently have will play into the quantum field. If you’re proficient in Python programming, for example, there are aspects of that that are applicable. Expand on what you already know. 

There are several courses available today. MIT, for example, has courses in quantum through its xPRO Series. The first of three courses are Quantum Computing Fundamentals, and there are more technical intermediate and advanced courses that follow. The Fundamentals course provides a foundational knowledge set that is a great starting point for entering the field. 

There are also many resources established under the National Quantum Initiative’s five DoE centers, QED-C or the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Quantum Challenge Institutes (QLCI), as well as ample summer programs and internships. 

In a recent article, Five lessons from AI on closing quantum’s talent gap—before it’s too late, McKinsey Digital predicts that by 2025, less than 50% of quantum jobs will be filled unless significant intervention occurs. To ensure that there’s sufficient access to quantum computing, McKinsey says that leaders, including at companies that will be users of quantum computing, will need to upskill workers, creating pathways for new talent, just as they did for AI. 

While today, some of the quantum talent gap can be addressed by upskilling workers in related disciplines, in the longer term, substantial investment will be needed to ensure a robust quantum workforce. Douglass’s advice? “Put yourself out there and try to find opportunities for hands-on learning. That is the biggest differentiator—those with hands-on experience are set apart.”