APS News

April 2024 (Volume 33, Number 3)

Building a Quantum Workforce Doesn’t Just Mean Graduating More Ph.D.s

To bring millions of new technology workers into the fold, nations must cast a wide net.

By McKenzie Prillaman | March 15, 2024

panelists five quantum
Credit: Elisa Seppänen

Panelists speak at the “Narrowing the Quantum Divide” event in Washington, D.C.

Science stands at the verge of a new quantum revolution. The first one created the field of quantum physics, whose 100-year anniversary will be celebrated in 2025, dubbed the International Year of Quantum Science and Technology. The current, and second, revolution aims to apply quantum principles to new, advanced technologies, like quantum computing, cryptography, and sensing. But that leap requires scaling up the human power needed to bring those advancements to life.

On Feb. 26, experts from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C., to address the gaps in building a quantum workforce at an event called “Narrowing the Quantum Divide,” co-sponsored by APS. The speakers emphasized that careers in quantum science and technology can come from a variety of educational backgrounds, and that quantum concepts should be incorporated early in education.

“We need to inspire future generations to be greatly engaged in the quantum revolution,” said Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador to the U.S.

The need is dire. For instance, in 2021, the Technology Industries of Finland estimated that the country would need 130,000 new technology experts within the next 10 years, said Jouko Lampinen, professor of computational engineering and dean of the School of Science at Aalto University in Finland. For the U.S. population, that would mean 8 million new experts, he noted.

But being an expert doesn’t require a Ph.D. in physics — or a Ph.D. at all. “We need people who are able to implement the ideas developed by all these brilliant scientists,” Pitteloud said.

That means knowledge gained from a master’s, bachelor’s, or vocational program. A study published in 2020 found that coding is the top skill needed in the quantum industry, said Heather Lewandowski, professor of physics and faculty director of CUbit Education and Workforce at the University of Colorado Boulder, who co-authored the work. Hands-on skills, like data analysis and laboratory experience, are also highly valued, she added, and many skills are transferable from other fields.

“We need to think broadly, and really encourage our students to think broadly, about entering the quantum industry with different types of degree preparation,” Lewandowski said.

At Front Range Community College’s Boulder County Campus, for example, students can learn those hands-on skills and gain real-world experience in two years or less. The Optics & Laser Technology program, which provides career and technical education much like a vocational school, works closely with optics, photonics, and quantum companies to discuss curriculum instruction and program resources, said Amanda Meier, who directs the program.

“We have been trying to keep our pulse alongside our industry partners to know what skills they need in their actual employees,” she said. Those taught include a broad range of laboratory skills, like how to work with equipment, cleanup protocols, and safety, as well as soft skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. Students earning a two-year associate’s degree apply their knowledge through a required internship.

“All of our students have had their pick of jobs as they come out,” Meier said. “Six months, and they’re already getting snatched up by employers.”

Because of the success, she has been working to expand the program and even get high schoolers involved. But many experts say that quantum education should be introduced much earlier than that.

“In the U.S., girls and people of color self-select out of [STEM] around middle school,” said Emily Edwards, associate research professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University and co-leader of the National Q-12 Education Partnership. “Kids are deciding really early — whether they realize or not — if they have a sense of belonging.”

Part of that opting out comes from a lack of representation and role models in STEM fields, particularly quantum science. Organizations like Girls in Quantum aim to build a community of diverse young people interested in the field and provide fun ways to learn.

Another factor is access to information and resources, which the National Q-12 Education Partnership works to tackle. The initiative has figured out where quantum concepts can fit into science and math curricula in American K-12 education and has developed materials for teachers. The goal is to engage 50,000 of them by the end of 2025, Edwards said. “It’s all about the teachers.”

Tim Smith, head of collaboration and information services at CERN, agreed. “The teachers are the ones that can reach 10, 100 times as many students as we can,” he said. By getting teachers to bring quantum science into their classrooms, it will become part of the common curriculum and language, he added. “Instead of people saying they’ve heard [of a quantum concept] in a Marvel movie, they will actually have heard it at school.”

Another way to reach students and the general public is World Quantum Day, Smith noted, an international celebration started in 2021 and held annually on April 14. Events across the globe work to raise awareness of the quantum world and its possibilities, he said.

Public engagement events like those held on World Quantum Day and the infusion of quantum concepts early in education will hopefully demystify and democratize the field, the speakers said, which will be needed as quantum science and technology progresses.

Over the “next 10 years, the development will be much, much faster than it was the last 10 years,” Lampinen said. There are so many “big, wicked questions” that quantum technology could help to address, like climate change, he noted. A highly skilled and diverse quantum workforce will be poised to “come up with some real, big solutions.”

McKenzie Prillaman is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Taryn MacKinney

April 2024 (Volume 33, Number 3)

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This Month in Physics History
Mess Around With Liquid Nitrogen. Go Viral. Repeat.
Building a Quantum Workforce Doesn’t Just Mean Graduating More Ph.D.s
Opinion: The Steep Price of Free Science Access
Grad Students and Postdocs Don’t Earn Fair Wages, so 91 Scientists Brought It Up With the Folks in Charge
Science Policy Highlights