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November 13, 2023

Quantum computing has a looming skills gap

Are universities, the private sector and government doing enough to promote quantum skills?

By Ryan Morrison

This is an amended version of the latest edition of Quantum Untangled, Tech Monitor’s weekly newsletter that delves into the practical implications of quantum computing. Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox every Thursday morning.

Every September, a new cohort of undergrads will pack their bags and head to university, hauling suitcases stuffed with bedding, books, pots and pans to new and unfamiliar student digs and a life completely and perilously lived independent of parental supervision.

According to the latest UK figures, almost 30,000 of them will be studying mathematical sciences, while 102,000 and 90,000 will be enrolled on engineering and computer science courses respectively. Companies like Google, IBM and Microsoft will be hoping that a few thousand of this total will take an interest in the fundamentals of quantum computing. While the sector is positively overflowing with VC capital and government funding, an emerging skills crisis means that its long-term future is dependent on keeping aspiring engineers and physicists out of the clutches of big banks, aerospace firms and AI start-ups and into the labs turning the theory of quantum computers into reality. 

A pair of glasses on an exercise book.
Lessons are just beginning for the quantum sector in how to build a talent pipeline. (Photo by Julija Sapic/Shutterstock)

They haven’t done a great job so far. A report by McKinsey published last year suggested that, on average, there is only one qualified candidate for every three job openings in the quantum market – with less than half of all quantum computing jobs expected to be filled by 2025. 

These roles will also be different to those that helped establish the current wave of quantum startups. Until recently, the sector placed a priority on recruiting those equipped with hard science skills – think quantum physics PhDs, or your run-of-the-mill experts in supercooling and states of matter. Now, as the industry shifts from theory to reality, the job market is getting practical. A new role has emerged, that of the so-called ‘quantum engineer’, which demands greater engineering knowledge on the part of new recruits to actually build the kinds of computers capable of rising to the lofty expectations of the industry at large. 

Educating quantum

Major quantum players haven’t exactly sat idly by as their skill needs have evolved over time. Many, in fact, have proactively invested in creating new university courses and bursaries, as well as boosting engagement on all things quantum lower down the educational ladder. IBM in particular launched its own ‘Quantum Experience’ programme in 2016 and open-sourced its famous Qiskit developer kit to allow programmers to interface with quantum computers with little more than a working knowledge of Python. 

Start-ups, too, have provided similar services as they grow. IQM Spark, a Finnish superconducting qubit firm, provides researchers and university students at the bachelor through to PhD level with access to its own quantum computer through its IQM Academy programme. Unlike IBM and the Big Tech giants, where access is provided via the cloud and on a shared network, the Finnish company provides aspiring quantum engineers hands-on experience with a pre-installed 5QB quantum processor, upgradable to meet increased workload and demand depending on what experiments it’s subjected to.

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These aren’t the only programmes on offer. The £2.5bn UK National Quantum Strategy lists the skills gap as one of its key priorities, specifically when it comes to making provision for new talent programmes for postgraduate skills, technical professionals and apprenticeships. While no specific initiatives have been outlined yet, over the next few years money will go to universities to develop new initiatives similar to the University of Edinburgh’s quantum algorithm programme. In the US, meanwhile, the quantum talent shortage has been dubbed a “national security vulnerability” by the Biden administration, which has declared its intention to fund talent programmes via its National Quantum Initiative Act.

Whether this will be enough to cater for the anticipated demand for quantum engineers is anyone’s guess. But now, at least, it is becoming apparent what skills will be needed for the quantum economy.

Read more: How quantum deals with heavy weather

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