Building the quantum workforce
(Symmetry) Many early-career scientists and students are already preparing for a future in quantum technology. For students wanting to explore quantum technology, physicist Aaron Chou has this advice: Spend some time understanding quantum mechanics. It’s not as intimidating as you think.
With the rapid progress happening in quantum systems, is there a need for an entirely new type of worker, a quantum engineer? “Not exactly,” says Celia Merzbacher, executive director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium and coauthor of “Assessing the Needs of the Quantum Industry.” She explains “it’s more than just the processor technology”
“There are a lot of surrounding or enabling technologies that are important,” she says.
Building quantum computers requires a number of interconnected engineering systems. For example, Merzbacher says, specialized electronics send precise microwave signals to the processor to control the qubit. Quantum systems require certain lasers, optics, vacuums and cryogenic systems. And there’s always the push to design these systems in more compact and stable forms..
“Companies are eager to hire people coming out of traditional engineering schools with expertise and knowledge in various classical fields such as photonics and software engineering,” Merzbacher explains. “With just an extra course or two about quantum science, they would be well-prepared for a job in this field.”
The realm of quantum technology extends well beyond physics, into any problem for which many potential solutions exist, such as modeling climate and weather, creating new types of molecules, or examining financial markets.
To tackle those types of problems, people are working to build useful quantum computers.
“You don’t need to be a PhD-level physicist to work on quantum systems,” says Benjamin Zwickl, a physics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “For students already majoring in all these different computer, engineering and science fields, if they had one or two courses in quantum, they’d be really competitive for many entry-level jobs at the bachelor’s degree level in quantum technology,” Zwickl says.
Those same areas that feed into the quantum workforce have some of the lowest diversity, Zwickl points out. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, White students in the US earned a higher proportion of degrees in the physical sciences than in other STEM fields in 2018—66% of bachelor’s degrees; 72% of master’s degrees; and 73% of research doctorates. Black and Hispanic adults were least represented among those earning doctorates in math, physical sciences and engineering. And although women earned 53% of STEM college degrees in 2018, they made up just 22% of those who earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering.
Yale University Physicist Reina Maruyama says that, as involvement in quantum information science grows at universities, tech companies and laboratories, it’s important to think about how to shift these patterns. “Sometimes the rush to get ahead can run counter to diversity or inclusivity,” she says.
In their paper, “Achieving a quantum smart workforce,” Zwickl and co-authors recommended incorporating quantum information training at the bachelor’s level and particularly at the associate’s degree level, where the student body tends to be more diverse. Zwickl adds that quantum initiatives at historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions can help students see future opportunities in the field and could remove barriers to entering the quantum workforce.