A critical technology area promises to transform nearly every industry dependent on speed and processing power, from agriculture and financial services to health care and defense: quantum information science and technology, or QIST. QIST is an interdisciplinary field studying how to apply the laws of quantum physics to various forms of information processing, including computation and messaging. Quantum technologies’ promising but unknown potential has led the Biden administration to rank U.S. leadership in this area among its highest priorities, but the United States currently lacks access to the talent required to maintain competitiveness. The United States’ QIST talent shortage is a national security risk–and the White House has no solid plan to fill critical vacancies.
QIST encompasses three primary subfields. Quantum computing studies how superposition and entanglement–two properties inherent in quantum bits, or qubits–can store data and solve problems too complex for current computers. Quantum communication exploits the properties of qubits to encode information and transfer data between distant locations, achieving a level of security not possible by current communication networks. Quantum sensing uses the sensitivity of quantum states to measure physical properties like temperature, magnetic field, and rotation with unparalleled precision.
Quantum technology systems are able to offer unprecedented speed, precision, and security–powers that have many civilian applications. Quantum computers could optimize efficiency and unlock new discoveries in industries like drug design, fertilizer production, and supply chain management. Quantum communication networks could improve the security of financial and health records, and quantum sensors carry tremendous potential to advance fields like bioimaging, spectroscopy, and environmental monitoring.
Quantum systems may also power the next generation of defense technologies. Quantum technologies will be scaled up and made commercially available to the first nation to do so. This could allow them to enhance their navigation and timing abilities, improve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or even crack encryption. The first country to scale and commercialize quantum technologies could gain the ability to improve their position, navigation, timing, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tactics, enhance counter-stealth capabilities, or crack adversaries’ encryption methods.
Given its potential for economic growth as well as military advantage, QIST has become a central battleground of U.S.-China competition. In all three subfields of QIST, neither country has a clear advantage. The United States leads in the development of quantum computing and quantum sensing–but Beijing is catching up. China is ahead of the United States in the development of quantum communications technologies and holds the highest number of total quantum technology patents, indicating that it could soon erode the United States’ advantages.
U.S. allies such as Australia, Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom are also making rapid progress and could emerge as dark-horse candidates in the race to commercialize and deploy quantum systems. Quantum company Q-CTRL CEO Michael Biercuk notes that many “‘nontraditional’ players” have “strong emerging quantum industries.” Australia, for example, has only 0. 3 percent of the world’s population but 10 percent of the world’s quantum scientists. Access to talent is a major factor in determining who wins the quantum race.
Yet, the exact definitions of quantum talent and quantum workforce are yet to be determined. The quantum industry is relatively nascent and engineers must overcome several remaining technical hurdles to build quantum systems capable of delivering real-world effects. As a result, the jobs, skills, and degrees that are relevant to a quantum workforce are ambiguous. But the need to develop a talent pool equipped to understand and apply QIST is urgent to compete with adversaries and remain at the cutting edge of research and discovery. The United States is facing significant obstacles in order to achieve this.
It is increasingly clear that a competitive quantum workforce must hold general science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills as well as quantum-specific expertise. This means that the United States needs such talent to maintain a QIST advantage and safeguard national and economic security. Concerningly, various indicators–including job board analyses and interviews with industry, academia, national laboratories, and government agencies–reflect a “significant unmet demand for talent at all levels.”
The United States’ general STEM skills gap is well–documented. The United States is projected to face a shortfall of nearly 2 million STEM workers by 2025, due in part to insufficient processes to develop future STEM talent. U.S. students consistently underperform on standardized math and science tests and face disparities in access to quality STEM resources based on socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and sex. U.S. students also demonstrate low STEM degree completion rates.
For the quantum industry, the general STEM talent shortage translates into a lack of candidates ready to fill roles that do not require quantum expertise, as well as those that do. Yuval Boger, chief marketing officer at quantum software company Classiq, refers to people with the mix of skills needed to advance the QIST field as “unicorns” who “don’t exist.” Only about one qualified quantum candidate is available for every three quantum job openings, and more than half of quantum companies are actively hiring. Recent research indicates that less than 50 percent of quantum computing jobs will be filled by 2025 unless significant interventions occur.
While the general shortage in STEM talent may be hard to ameliorate, there are easier solutions to the QIST-specific skills gap. International collaboration and concerted efforts to retain foreign-born employees ,, as well as initiatives to reskill existing workers from other technology sectors are likely to be the fastest way to increase the U.S. Quantum workforce. The reason for this is that increased investment into QIST has created , a world where readily available knowledge is dispersed globally. Most existing quantum-relevant talent is educated and resides outside of the United States, and a number of faculty members driving basic research and creating QIST curricula in the United States are foreign-born. Further, developing new domestic QIST experts is a slow process. The median time to complete U.S. higher-education QIST degrees ranges from four to 10 years, and few QIST-specific programs exist. Existing foreign talent is thus required to fill QIST knowledge gaps in the immediate term and build additional domestic avenues to QIST expertise in the longer term.
The United States could also reconfigure K-12 education and professional development programming to build a better quantum workforce. Interviews with quantum experts and industry partners reveal that the United States lacks age-appropriate QIST learning materials and information about quantum careers, maintains insufficient hands-on learning opportunities for students, and fails to coordinate disparate QIST education programs.
Similarly, the United States lacks opportunities for QIST professionals to advance their careers and expand their skill sets. Several private companies, universities, and government agencies have initiated QIST training and learning programs but lack mechanisms for coordination and collaboration. Extending professional development opportunities to sizable untapped talent pools in the United States–including minority communities, individuals without college degrees, and individuals in rural areas–could help cultivate a more robust and representative QIST workforce.
The United States has taken a few laudable steps to patch these vulnerabilities and bolster the U.S. quantum workforce. The CHIPS and Science Act calls on the National Science Foundation to evaluate the QIST workforce, integrate quantum into STEM curricula at all levels, and establish a “Next Generation Quantum Leaders Pilot Program.” The National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA) also highlights the importance of quantum-specific curricula and dedicates funding toward talent development. The FY22 National Defense Authorization Act builds on these efforts, directing the Department of Defense to expand the grant program supporting STEM education in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to include QIST.
But these efforts may not be enough to give the United States the edge it needs to outcompete other countries that threaten to do better in attracting, retaining, and developing quantum talent.
The Biden administration should work with allies and partners to create cross-training and reciprocal research exchange programs with QIST centers worldwide, which would enable the United States to maximize the full potential of foreign quantum expertise. They would also establish lines of communication that the United States and its allies could use to coordinate quantum supply chains, promote consistent technology protections, and develop technology standards based on shared values.
Additionally, Congress should reauthorize key programs within the NQIA, which are set to expire in September 2023 and have played a crucial role in funneling funding to the QIST field, advancing scientific research, and opening pathways to quantum careers. The NQIA reauthorization should include the establishment of a national center to harmonize and support existing quantum education and workforce initiatives. The center should also assume responsibility for providing information about quantum careers, monitoring the evolution of the quantum workforce, and identifying new workforce requirements as the quantum industry transitions to more advanced research and technology commercialization.
Finally, universities should partner with quantum industry leaders to develop additional QIST degree programs that model new industry-specific curricula in other critical technology areas, like Purdue University’s semiconductor degrees and credentials program. These programs could help to expand quantum education, and provide university professors with the necessary tools.
The United States has reached a critical inflection. Though practical use cases remain limited, quantum technologies are maturing rapidly, and several countries could surpass the United States as the global QIST leader. The United States has QIST advantages but can only maximize them by first prioritizing the development of a robust, diverse, and agile quantum workforce. Access to talent is a key factor that will determine which country ultimately wins the quantum race. To maintain the United States’ lead, both government and academia as well as private industry are equally responsible.
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