A more quantum-literate workforce is needed

STEM degrees remain valuable, but as the field grows, companies also want candidates who understand quantum information science and technology concepts, a new study finds.

A new study is providing guidelines for how colleges and universities can update their curricula to incorporate quantum computing to prepare for the expected wave of jobs.

Researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and the University of Colorado Boulder suggested steps that need to be taken after interviewing managers at more than 20 quantum technology companies in the US.

The finding from the interviews is that those graduating with bachelor’s degrees in physics may lack the skills they need to enter the quantum workforce, RIT said. Changing that, the researchers said, could completely alter how physics courses are taught and help make the subject relevant to a new generation of students.

The impetus for the study was to understand the types of entry-level positions these companies offer and the educational pathways that might lead into those jobs, according to RIT. The researchers found that while the companies still seek employees with traditional STEM degrees, they want the candidates to understand fundamental concepts in quantum information science and technology.

“For a lot of those roles, there’s this idea of being ‘quantum aware’ that’s highly desirable,” said Ben Zwickl, an RIT associate professor, in a statement. “The companies told us that many positions don’t need to have deep expertise, but students could really benefit from a one- or two-semester introductory sequence that teaches the foundational concepts, some of the hardware implementations, how the algorithms work, what a qubit is, and things like that.”

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While a graduate can bring in the strength of a traditional STEM degree, it’s also important that they can speak the language the company is talking about, added Zwickl, who is also a member of RIT’s Future Photon Initiative and Center for Advancing STEM Teaching, Learning, and Evaluation.

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The study’s authors said colleges and universities should offer introductory, multidisciplinary courses with few prerequisites that will allow software engineering, computer science, physics, and other STEM majors to learn the core concepts together. Zwickl said providing quantum education opportunities to students across disciplines will be important because quantum technology has the opportunity to disrupt a wide range of fields.

“It’s a growing industry that will produce new sensors, imaging, communication, computing technologies, and more,” he said. “A lot of the technologies are in a research and development phase, but as they start to move toward commercialization and mass production, you will have end-users who are trying to figure out how to apply the technology. They will need technical people on their end that are fluent enough with the ideas that they can make use of it.”

Companies such as IBM and Google have built functioning quantum machines containing a few tens of qubits and plans are underway for larger, 1,000-qubit computers. To reach that goal, a more quantum-literate workforce is needed, according to the researchers.

Most of the companies that the team consulted with are part of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), a group working to grow the US quantum industry, according to the online site Physics. The representatives were mainly direct supervisors of entry-level technical staff, rather than top-level executives. “We wanted to talk to people who could speak with knowledge about the tasks being carried out in entry-level jobs,” Zwickl explained.

In the interviews, the representatives were asked questions geared at discovering what scientific, technical, and soft skills companies want in new hires, as well as the type of quantum-specific knowledge required. The interviews also covered hiring practices and on-the-job training opportunities, the site said.

The team found two common threads from the responses, Physics reported. First, companies said they were often looking for people who were quantum “aware”—they broadly understood the concepts behind quantum computing, sensing, or communication, and they could talk about those concepts effectively. However, the candidates don’t need a deep knowledge of the nitty-gritty equations and theory, the site said.

The second finding was that candidates with hands-on lab skills, such as the ability to make electrical devices, were favored over those with none. “Most of these companies are looking for quantum-literate engineers who can help build quantum devices and make them work reliably,” said Michael Fox, who works in physics education research at the UC Boulder, and conducted all of the interviews, the site said.

But bachelor-degree graduates with those two skills can be hard to find due to the way quantum courses are designed. Undergraduate physics majors generally have very little experience with building electrical or quantum devices, while engineering undergraduates often have little to no exposure to quantum mechanics, said researcher Heather Lewandowski, a quantum physicist at UC Boulder, Physics reported.

Quantum physics is typically an advanced course, requiring many prerequisites, which can limit access to majors outside of physics, Fox said. The content of the courses is also outdated, focusing on the quantum physics of the early 1900s rather than the “more exciting” advances of the last decade, Physics reported. Another issue is most of the introductory quantum classes have a hands-off format. 

Zwickl said he is hoping to apply many of the lessons learned from the study to RIT’s curriculum. He is in the process of developing two new introductory RIT courses in quantum information and science as well as an interdisciplinary minor in the field, the university said.

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