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Now Hiring: The New Quantum Workforce

World cloud in the shape of Schrodingers Cat

What qualifications are companies looking for in the quantum workforce? The Lewandowski Group found a lot of different ideas made up the theoretical Schrodinger's Cat of the new quantum workforce.

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Michael Fox/JILA

Scientists believe we are living in the Second Quantum Revolution, a period of rapid advances in technology based on discoveries in quantum science. Companies from giants like IBM and Google to small startups are eager to create and perfect these new quantum technologies—and that requires training a new kind of workforce.

Universities are currently adapting their curriculum to prepare their students to enter that workforce. But what exactly do these jobs require? What kind of work is out there? That’s what JILA Fellow Heather Lewandowski wanted to know. 

“Everybody was saying we need to develop all these different degree programs to create the quantum workforce. But there was no data backing it,” Lewandowski said. “I think that our group has the ability to probe this from a rigorous, educational research point of view.” 

In hour-long interviews, Lewandowski’s postdoc Michael Fox asked 21 companies about these positions and what skills they required. After some analysis, Lewandowski and her group found that not everyone needs a PhD in physics to find a job in this field. Their findings were recently published in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

Classical skills with quantum knowledge

The quantum industry is very broadly defined, but the Lewandowski Group found five general categories among these companies: quantum sensors, quantum networking and communication, quantum computing hardware, quantum computing algorithms and applications, and facilitating hardware such as lasers, cryogenics or other specialized tools for the above listed technologies. The scientific jobs in these industries also fell into five categories: engineer, experimental scientist, theorist, technician, and application researcher. 

Quantum sensors, computers, and communications are still in their infancy, and many companies are heavily invested in doing their own research and development. That’s where physics PhDs are most needed, Lewandowski found. These are the group leaders, the idea people. People with specialized knowledge of quantum physics lead R&D projects and development in the industry. 

They also found that PhD physics courses in quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, atomic physics, and statistical mechanics are valuable, and the practical experience of designing and running experiments was highly desirable.

But of all of these positions, engineers (or positions titled engineers) are in the highest demand. However, the Lewandowski Group found that these companies weren’t always looking for PhDs, but often talented classical engineers.

“Physicists design something and then engineers optimize it…They want people that can speak quantum and know the basics but that are really good in their own discipline, in particular the engineers,” Lewandowski said. “You need to be a really good engineer first. Whether you are an electrical engineer or mechanical engineer, you want to have good classical skills first. Then you might want to do a minor in quantum engineering where you are going to take a few extra courses that cover some quantum mechanics and applications.” 

That’s good news for those who have been working as electrical engineers or mechanical engineers, she pointed out. These highly-skilled engineers can take a few courses in quantum physics to gain the understanding they need to work in these new industries. 

And, despite the anticipation around quantum computers, there was a lower demand for computer scientists. However, the team found the most highly requested skill was coding—classical coding, not quantum coding.

Rethinking quantum workforce education 

It’s important for students and educators to remember that this is a growing industry; there’s no reliable data available to say how many of these jobs are currently available or will exist in the near future, Lewandowski pointed out. 

In their paper, the group made recommendations for universities on courses that will best prepare students for working in this field in various roles. Those include lab skills, particularly in optics and photonics, as well as engineering and collaborative coding skills. 

“Our goal is really to reach university faculty and administrators in particular, because they are the ones developing programs and thinking about resources,” Lewandowski added. 

And for students, she offered this advice: “You don’t need multiple degrees. You can get an engineering degree with a couple of these courses. Or, if you really want leadership of a lab or leadership of R&D, it looks like a PhD in physics is still the way to go for now.” 

This study was published in Physical Review Physics Education Research on October 29, 2020. This work was part of the CUbit Quantum Initiative, which includes Q-SEnSE: Quantum Systems through Entangled Science and Engineering. It was supported by the National Science Foundation Physics Frontier Center grant, and a SEED grant through the Research and Innovation Office. The Quantum Economic Development Consortium helped with recruitment for the study.

 

Written by Rebecca Jacobson

Synopsis

Quantum discoveries are poised to revolutionize our technology. The new quantum industry is rapidly growing to capitalize and advance those new devices—that means they’re looking for employees with quantum physics knowledge to work for them. The Lewandowski Group did a qualitative study to learn what specific skills these employers were looking for.

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