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Innovation

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

Quantum computing companies need talent. But you don't need a PhD to work in technology's most exciting field.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor on
a black glowing box containing an artist's rendition of a qunatum computer, with bright lights and cables flowing from it
Image: Bartlomiej Wroblewski/Getty Images

Like most tech sectors, quantum computing has a skills shortage.

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 for the industry. Governments and businesses are funnelling tens of billions of dollars into quantum computing, and yet progress in the industry will remain elusive unless the industry can recruit the people to make that happen.

One of the issues is that the sector typically requires academic specializations – quantum physics, for example – and PhDs, setting a high barrier to entry straight out of the gate.

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

As mass layoffs create turmoil at Big Tech, British quantum computing startup Universal Quantum believes now is the ideal time for technology professionals to transfer their skills to the burgeoning quantum sector.

"The good news is, we don't need strange, mysterious quantum physicists all cross the board," says professor Winfried Hensinger, co-founder and chief scientist at Universal Quantum.

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

Universal Quantum is on a recruitment drive after recently securing €67 million ($68.5m) in funding – the biggest government contract awarded to a single quantum computing company – to fund its efforts to build the world's first one-million-qubit quantum computer.

It's a bold ambition, particularly when you consider that the world's most powerful quantum computing chip, produced by IBM, contains 433 quantum bits or "qubits".

The company is confident it can be done. But coaxing technologists into such a nascent sector when traditional tech companies are also desperately hiring presents a something of a multi-pronged problem. Universal Quantum is looking for all manner of skills, from circuit chip designers, digital design professionals and field programmable gate array (FPGA) engineers, to coders who fancy the challenge of writing entirely new software for an entirely new platform.

"There are some areas of talent that are incredibly niche and very quantum-specific, so obviously that has the same challenges you have for any niche talent pool – you have to make sure that you've got a really strong employer brand, a really great employee value proposition – that people understand their part in working towards what you're doing," says Samantha Edmondson, head of people at Universal Quantum.

"Where we struggle sometimes with talent is in these classical engineering spheres that are very competitive, and also the 'quantum mystique' – people don't think they can transition from their classical engineering role to a quantum engineering role, and it's almost [a case of] having to coax them and convince them that, yes, we really need their exact skills exactly as they are."

The problem isn't just in the industry shortage of in-demand tech skills – there are also academic blockers in the talent pipeline.

While you might not need to be a quantum theorist to work on the tech team at Universal Quantum – "some of our best engineers don't have a remotely academic background," Edmondson tells ZDNET – the theory work behind quantum machines is deeply entrenched in quantum physics, advanced mathematics, and a wealth of other interdisciplinary skills that are typically only found at PhD level.

According to Hensinger, there simply aren't enough PhD graduates or physicists "who really understand what goes on under the hood" of a quantum computer.

"This is very, very urgent," he says.

"We see this even in universities, that we struggle to even hire post-doctorate fellows because we don't produce enough PhD students."

Also: Quantum computing's next big challenge: A quantum skills shortage

It's also difficult to attract PhD students to the UK from other countries, thanks to restrictive government policies and the fact that funding is reserved for UK students only. "That means we can't recruit international students, even if we wanted to," says Hensinger.

"That's a big problem. The UK should become a really high-tech nation, and we should get the very best people from around the world to come and learn in our universities."

The take-home message is that educators and businesses need to do better at teaching young people about the benefits of a career in technology, and introduce STEM to children at a much younger age.

Hensinger believes the appetite is there. "I got into quantum computing because in primary school I decided I wanted to be a Science Officer on the Enterprise," he says.

"I think quantum computing and quantum technologies in general, they play a really, really important role. Whenever I give a public lecture, I have people coming up to me after and kids saying, 'Wow, this is the coolest thing ever!'"

Equally, there is still some demystifying to do. Quantum computing is still in its infancy, and it will be years, perhaps decades, before any of the revolutionary applications theorized by scientists are fully realized.   

But Edmondson notes that it's this big-picture thinking that makes the industry so alluring, particularly as traditional tech companies start looking towards the future – and hiring shifts accordingly.

"I think it is a very uniting factor in everybody we hire that they express huge excitement about the possibility of actually making a difference to the world and doing something good at the cutting edge of technology," she says.

"This is an area where quantum now hopefully can thrive, and fill these sectors with some confidence, because as they are experiencing layoffs in traditional tech companies, quantum is only growing and growing."

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