The second quantum revolution is underway, a period marked by significant advances in quantum technology, and huge discoveries within quantum science. From tech giants like Google and IBM, who build their own quantum computers, to quantum network startups like Aliro Quantum, companies are eager to profit from this revolution. However, doing so takes a new type of workforce, one trained in quantum physics and quantum technology. The skillset required for this occupation is unique, and few universities expose students to real-world quantum technology. This in turn leads to a tiny talent pool of qualified job candidates for a rapidly expanding industry. Realizing this growing problem, the NSF has taken strides to better train individuals by collaborating with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop valuable resources for businesses and educators.
According to Forbes Magazine, the lack of a direct pipeline between universities and quantum technology businesses has resulted in many quantum employees having a more general science background. Once hired, many employees then have to “study up” on quantum physics and quantum mechanics in order to understand their purpose within the business. Surprisingly, many quantum technology companies are not looking for physics students with PhDs but rather engineering students. This has caused some engineering students to take physics classes to learn about quantum science and technology, even when not required for their major.
Universities are beginning to realize that their curricula need to change in order to create properly trained candidates. This process is difficult, as not every faculty member has background in the quantum industry from a business perspective. Even for those who do, the challenge of teaching a quantum workforce can be overwhelming. "There's a strong pull for people to come into this field. And yet, it's not immediately clear how to actually train the quantum workforce, " Dr. Prineha Narang, assistant professor of Computational Materials and Applied Science at Harvard University and Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of Aliro Quantum stated. Narang is one of those faculty members who are using their industry experience to help train students to be part of the quantum workforce.
JILA is one institution that is working to prepare this future quantum workforce. JILA has made a name for itself by being at the forefront of developing new quantum technology and discovering new things within quantum science. According to JILA and NIST Fellow Jun Ye: “One area we are working on is to create more opportunities for students of diverse background to have hands-on training in quantum technologies and related technical areas and enhance interactions between these students and the existing quantum experts. Another important area is to extend the workforce pipeline to cover pre-college students and existing industry workforce with no prior quantum background.”
JILA has several centers within itself for specific research within quantum science. These include Q-SEnSE: Quantum Systems through Entangled Science and Engineering, the JILA Physics Frontier Center (PFC), STROBE, the CUbit Quantum Initiative, and the Center for Theory of Quantum Matter (CTQM). Often, these centers collaborate with each other, bringing multiple disciplines together to work on scientific problems. “The twenty-first century is an amazing time to be a scientist,” JILA Fellow and STROBE Director Margaret Murnane said. “The quantum technology challenges we need to solve span materials science, light and imaging science, computer science and more, so there are terrific opportunities to work as part of transdisciplinary teams. There are many opportunities for discoveries at the boundaries between these fields, and so many ways that we can help and learn from each other.” CUbit Executive Director Philip Makotyn added: “Quantum information technologies are at a tipping point in growing into a new economic pillar due to recent technology advances, federal funding, and private investment. Inclusion and equity of is critical if we’re to meet the growing workforce and supply chain needs.” These JILA centers are helping to set aside time and funding to better prepare students for their future careers in the quantum industry.
Quantum’s Lack of Workforce Diversity
While the training of a quantum workforce is a long and ongoing process, it provides an opportunity to increase employee diversity within this workforce. Within the quantum industry, and even technology industry as a whole, such diversity is lacking, with notable under representation of specifically women and minorities. This lack of representation may be fostered in universities, particularly in majors like engineering or physics. Recipients of these degrees have historically had a lower ratio of women or other marginalized groups, thereby skewing the workforce toward being white and male. According to a 2016 survey from EngineeringUK, women only made up 12% of engineering for any sector. Physics isn't much better when it comes to diversity, as a 2020 article from IBM stated that: "In the field of physics, Black Americans represent only 1% of total PhD’s. And the number of Black students graduating with a physics PhD, has been decreasing since 2012." These statistics, while not surprising to some, show that the college majors typically supplying the quantum workforce may play a significant role in the under representation of these minorities.
Another theory on to the origins of this under representation is postulated by Dr. Tina Brower-Thomas, Assistant Research Professor, Howard University Graduate School and Executive Director Center Integrated Quantum Materials Brower-Thomas believes the stage is already set for a lack of diversity within the quantum workforce and it is indelibly tied to the gap in resources and infrastructure at minority serving institutions. “If allowed to persist, we will face a twenty-first century “quantum, digital divide”, said Brower-Thomas. She further explained that the term digital divide, coined in the late twentieth century, refers to the acknowledged lack of reliable and affordable internet access in rural and low-income communities: “K-12 schools, community colleges and universities that serve underserved communities need access to the tools of education and research that allow youth an early exposure to quantum. Early exposure is essential to preparing the future workforce. I firmly believe that ability is certainly a necessary factor in preparing the quantum workforce, but we cannot underestimate access and experience”.
JILA, for its part, makes sure to offer a wide variety of outreach for early exposure to this technology. JILA hosts programs like The Partnerships for Informal Science Education in the Community (PISEC), in which university faculty, staff, and students teach inquiry-based science to children in grades K-8. Other programs are targeted for older students and adults, like the Saturday Physics Series or the Physics Education Research (PER) Group. All of these activities work to foster an interest in physics. JILA also utilizes its partnerships with CU to expand its outreach, such as with CU Wizards, a program that has entertained and informed children about the wonders of science for over 30 years. These programs are helpful in bridging the digital divide in the Boulder area and surrounding regions, and allows for resources to be shared to inspire interests that lead to a more properly trained quantum workforce.
Increasing Diversity Through Training
JILA is stepping up to not only train future generations of the quantum workforce, but to emphasize diversity. According to Mike Bennet, JILA PFC Director of Educational Outreach and Research: “It's imperative that efforts to recruit into the quantum workforce don't just cater to well-prepared students at large R1 universities [Research 1 Universities, designated by participating in the highest levels of research], but are designed from the ground up for students from a diverse set of backgrounds and experience levels as well. Creating a truly representative quantum workforce is both a matter of expanding our vision for who gets to participate and a matter of ensuring that we create cultures and environments that diverse populations of students want to join.” JILA is ensuring that diversity is implemented with programs like Justice Equity Diversity and Inclusivity (JEDI). This program encourages conversations about diversity and works to support a community of inclusivity within JILA. Being more inclusive leads to a larger talent pool that JILA Fellows can partner with to properly train the incoming quantum workforce. These Fellows help students go to quantum technology conferences, or network with the many quantum technology businesses in the U.S.
While these partnerships are beneficial, others, like Brower-Thomas, believe increasing diversity will take “dedication and a paradigm shift”. "We have to get rid of this myth that certain things are only for certain people," Brower-Thomas explained. "I think it's a change of mentality, not only for people who are trying to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but also for leaders in technology and business who by now recognize the importance of increasing the numbers and diversity in STEM.” JILA emphasizes this inclusion through its JEDI program, which helps to encourage individuals from all backgrounds to pursue a career in quantum science, breaking the stereotype-creating myth.
Brower-Thomas alludes to the history of bias against minorities like women or African Americans within the quantum industry, which contributes to under representation. Many are worried that that bias is built into the quantum science itself, specifically in its vocabulary. A 2021 Scientific American article discussed how the term "quantum supremacy," (when a programmed quantum device can solve a problem more complicated than what a normal computer can solve) is similar to the phrase "white supremacy." As reported in the article "white supremacy" was the most used phrase containing the word "supremacy", being used 15 times more than the next highest phrase, "judicial supremacy." The authors of the article recommended the phrase "quantum primacy" as opposed to "quantum supremacy" to remove any perception of potential bias. Currently, the phrase “quantum advantage,” is also used, removing this bias.
But this may not be enough, as JILA Fellow Heather Lewandowski explained: “We need to stop talking about how quantum is strange and spooky. This is not motivating for everyone. Often, this language communicates that you have to be special to understand these concepts and quantum has no connection to real life. Quantum-enabled technology can be understood and used to impact real world applications.” Putting the technology into a more accessible and familiar perspective can keep students motivated and aligned for better career positions in the quantum workforce.
To ensure diversity as the quantum workforce develops, it will be important to consider who has—and does not have—access to federally funded resources. "We as a community have to buy into the idea that we're all better off if more have opportunities to contribute to quantum," said Brower-Thomas. "Whether that is engaging diverse communities and exposing citizens to quantum, providing teachers resources to quantum educate, investing in infrastructure, reeducating the current workforce, or improving ways to help the existing quantum community engage others. Let's open the door."
This article was written by Kenna Castleberry, JILA Science Communicator, and adapted from a separate article from The Quantum Daily by the same author.
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Photo courtesy of Freepik.com
Dr. Prineha Narang: Assistant Professor at Harvard University and Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of Aliro Quantum
Dr. Tina Brower-Thomas: assistant research professor, Howard University graduate school, and a visiting faculty at Harvard University