Fixing the next big tech skills shortage will need a quantum leap

a black glowing box containing an artist's rendering of a quantum computer with bright lights and cables streaming from it

Image: Bartlomyj Wroblewski/Getty Images

As with most tech industries, there is a skills shortage in quantum computing.

According to a September 2022 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than half of quantum computer companies are currently hiring.

This poses a challenge to the industry. Governments and companies are pouring tens of billions of dollars into quantum computing, but progress will remain elusive unless the industry can hire the people to make it happen.

One problem is that the industry typically requires academic specializations – such as quantum physics – and PhDs, which creates a high barrier to entry right out of the gate.

But not all jobs in quantum computing require a PhD-level education in quantum theory, advanced mathematics, or computer science. In fact, many roles require traditional hardware and software skills — meaning techies might need minimal or no retraining for a career in quantum computing.

With mass layoffs rocking Big Tech, British quantum computing startup Universal Quantum believes now is the perfect time for tech professionals to lend their skills to the burgeoning quantum sector.

“The good news is that we don’t need weird, arcane quantum physicists,” says Professor Winfried Hensinger, co-founder and chief scientist of Universal Quantum.

Also: What is quantum computing? Everything you need to know about the strange world of quantum computers

Universal Quantum is hiring after recently securing €67 million ($68.5 million) in funding, the largest government contract awarded to a single quantum computing company, to fund its efforts to build the world’s first one-million-qubit quantum computer.

That’s a bold goal, especially when you consider that the world’s most powerful quantum computing chip, made by IBM, contains 433 quantum bits, or “qubits.”

The company is confident that it can be done. But wooing technologists in such a nascent sector, when traditional tech companies are also frantically hiring, presents a multi-faceted challenge. Universal Quantum is looking for all kinds of skills, from circuit chip designers, digital design professionals and field programmable gate array (FPGA) engineers to coders who want to write brand new software for a brand new platform.

“There are some talent areas that are incredibly niche and very specific to quant, so obviously it has the same challenges as any niche talent pool – you’ve got to make sure you have a really strong employer brand, a great employee value proposition – so people understand your investment in what you do,” says Samantha Edmondson, head of people at Universal Quantum.

“Sometimes we struggle with talent in these classical engineering fields, which are very competitive, and also in ‘quantum mystique’ – people don’t think they can move from their classical engineering role to a quantum engineering role, and it’s almost [a case of] they have to be persuaded and convinced that, yes, we do need their exact skills exactly as they are.”

The problem is not just a lack of technology skills in demand in the industry – there are also academic blockers in the talent pool.

While you may not need to be a quantum theorist to work on Universal Quantum’s technology team — “some of our best engineers don’t have remotely an academic background,” Edmondson tells ZDNET — the theory work involved in quantum machines is deeply rooted in quantum physics. advanced mathematics and many other interdisciplinary skills typically found only at the doctoral level.

According to Hensinger, there simply aren’t enough PhDs or physicists “who really understand what’s going on under the hood of a quantum computer.”

“It’s very, very urgent,” he says.

“We’re seeing it even in universities, that we’re having a hard time even recruiting postdoctoral fellows because we don’t have enough PhDs.”

Also: Quantum Computing’s Next Big Challenge: The Lack of Quantum Skills

It is also difficult to attract PhD students to the UK from other countries due to restrictive government policies and the fact that funding is restricted to UK students. “That means we can’t recruit international students even if we wanted to,” says Hensinger.

“It’s a big problem. The UK needs to become a truly high-tech country and we need to get the best people from all over the world to come and study in our universities.”

The take-home message is that educators and businesses need to do a better job of teaching young people about the benefits of tech careers and introducing STEM to kids at a much younger age.

Hensinger believes the appetite is there. “I got into quantum computing because I decided in grad school that I wanted to be a scientist in a company,” he says.

“I think quantum computing and quantum technology in general has a very, very important role to play. Whenever I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterward and kids say, ‘Wow, this is the coolest thing ever!’ “

Also, some demystification still needs to be done. Quantum computing is still in its infancy, and it will be years, perhaps decades, before any of the revolutionary applications scientists theorize are fully realized.

But Edmondson notes that it’s this big-picture thinking that makes the industry so attractive, especially as traditional tech companies start to look to the future and hire shifts accordingly.

“I think it’s a very unifying factor for everyone we hire that they’re really excited about actually changing the world and doing something good in the latest technology,” she says.

“This is an area where hopefully quantum can now develop and fill these industries with some confidence because as they experience layoffs in traditional tech companies, quantum just keeps growing and growing.”

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