A guide to the quantum workforce of tomorrow

Welcome to the future. It’s 2022 and the near billion-dollar quantum computing sector has gone from a passion project for forward-thinking physicists to a thriving B2B industry. Experts predict the market for quantum technologies will quadruple in value by 2029

Simply put there’s never been a better time than right now for potential jobseekers to get in on what, arguably, could be the greatest technological revolution since the advent of the internet. But what if you don’t have a PhD in physics or a background in quantum research? 

Fret not. The world of quantum technologies will require a lot more than just project managers and theoretical physicists over the next few decades and beyond. Especially in Europe where the push towards useful innovation has the industry on the cusp of a massive growth period

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This article will give you a brief overview of the current and expected opportunities in the quantum industry, and what you’ll need to know in order to take advantage of them.

(Wikimedia Commons: “A zooming in on a wafer of D-Wave Quantum Computers”)

Opportunities abound

There are at least a dozen companies in Europe developing hardware solutions for quantum computing applications. And, on the other side of that coin, there are scores of companies working on components, operating systems, software, and quantum applications. This all means we’re going to need a lot of human power, and not just those with master’s or PhD-level degrees. 

That information comes from a report from venture capitalist and analyst Alex Kiltz, who also says that the European Union will nearly match US government spending between now and 2028. Even more interesting, Kiltz says Germany will spend nearly twice as much during the same period. 

What this all points to is a potential employment boom for certain field-adjacent specialties. While it is certainly true that the quantum industry will need a lot of quantum physicists, it’s fair to say nearly every STEM category will be in high demand going forward. 

Theoretical physicists tend to work with math specialists and computer scientists at the early stages of quantum computing research and development. And, when it comes to building the actual computers, not only does this require engineers with specialties ranging from cryogenics to lasers, but there’s also the development of the software and algorithms that the machines will use to demonstrate computation. 

Finally, once a quantum computer is deployed, it takes an advanced IT team to run. If it exists on-site, for large clients such as government agencies, the site will need to host a team of scientists, engineers, and machine learning specialists in order to ensure the system runs properly. And, if the system is set up for cloud access, it requires a similar IT team plus someone capable of operating the cloud infrastructure as well. 

The people responsible for building, deploying, maintaining, and operating these systems will be vanguards working at the cutting edge of technology. If that’s not enough incentive, Glassdoor says the average pay for a quantum computing engineer is about $125K per year. There’s money to be made at the cutting edge, to be sure.

(Wikimedia Commons: A dilution refrigerator at the London Centre for Nanotechnology)

A quantum education

There are, essentially, four ways to get involved in the quantum computing revolution from the inside:

  • Get a PhD/Master’s in theoretical physics or relevant engineering program with a specific focus on quantum technologies.
  • Get a STEM degree in nearly any adjacent field, ensuring you also take a few courses related to quantum physics.
  • Apply or acquire related STEM skills and qualifications.
  • Invest in quantum technologies companies and startups.

The first one might take the longest, but it’s also the surest path. It’s difficult to find specific numbers for the EU, but in the US experts expect the overall employment of physicists to grow a whopping 8% between 2021 and 2031 — a faster rate than all other occupations. 

Due to the current size and rate of investment in quantum tech from the EU and its individual member nations, it’s safe to say that Europe should experience a similar need for new physicists. 

Those wishing to fill that void can always apply to one of the continent’s prestigious schools. Not only does Europe produce the most physicists in the world, but Denmark even has the distinction of producing the most per capita, with 635 higher education graduates per year per million citizens. 

But, as mentioned above, you don’t actually have to be a physicist to get in on the action. Those considering pursuing a college degree in nearly any STEM field can increase their chances of working in the quantum sector without straying too far from their core disciplines.

As Celia Merzbacher, executive director of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, recently told Symmetry, “Companies are eager to hire people coming out of traditional engineering schools with expertise and knowledge in various classical fields such as photonics and software engineering. With just an extra course or two about quantum science, they would be well-prepared for a job in this field.”

Some areas of study to consider:

  • Lasers/photonics
  • Cryogenics
  • Applied mathematics
  • Computer science
  • Artificial intelligence / machine learning
  • Advanced engineering degrees

The third option is a bit more nebulous. Those already working in STEM, or autodidacts with a penchant for learning complex paradigms could, theoretically at least, learn how to program quantum systems through one of the many available open-source projects.

There’s a widespread need for competent quantum programmers and machine learning specialists who are proficient in both Qiskit and TensorFlow. It’s possible you could get the right certifications without spending much beyond the cost of your internet access, but you might find yourself in competition with university graduates for positions at larger companies. 

Finally, you could always get onboard the quantum train by opening your wallet. There are numerous public quantum technology outfits with more popping up all the time. It’s beyond the scope of this article (or its author) to give financial advice, but here’s a list of 24 examples of quantum stocks you can potentially invest in. You could also get involved in the quantum VC scene and fund any of the dozens of startups in Europe as well.

(Wikimedia Commons: A 128-qubit superconducting adiabatic quantum optimization processor from D-Wave)

Our quantum future

Once you’ve gained a relevant background and/or credentials, your prospects for employment in the quantum realm will largely depend on your geography. Candidates in China, the US, and Europe will tend to have a leg up over those in other countries, but the rise of remote working has done a lot to level the playing field. 

It’s also worth noting that with high demand often comes high quality competition for the most prestigious spots. Luckily, the outlook is still quite bright. A recent study conducted by a multidisciplinary team of researchers found that the quantum technologies industry was likely to present plenty of opportunity for specialists, but those with traditional STEM educations not focused on quantum technologies would still be considered in high demand among companies in the sector. The same researchers also indicated that this would apply as much to those with undergraduate degrees as it does to PhDs. 

The majority of this article has focused on how you can become a part of the burgeoning quantum technologies industry. Now, let’s shift that focus to why you’d want to build quantum computers or adjacent tech. 

Aside from the fact that it’s a lucrative field of study at the cutting edge of STEM, the quantum computing industry is also a robust platform for far-future technology. Sure, there’s other industries where you can make a lot of money but working in quantum means potentially solving some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. 

Supercomputers and advanced machine learning algorithms have taken us to the cusp of understanding the quantum nature of the universe. We might be on the verge of understanding wormholes, dark matter, and the exact size of the universe, and quantum technology could push us over the edge. 

We’re also going to need quantum computers and sensors to take particle accelerators, fusion experiments, and artificial intelligence to the next level. And who knows what else they’ll do? We’re in the very infancy of quantum technology. That means we’re as capable of understanding the potential future uses of quantum in 2022 as computer scientists were of predicting the iPhone in the 1950s.

In the meantime, the companies currently involved in the quantum industry are developing new uses for the technology at an increasing rate. Quantum sensors are currently used in a variety of fields, from construction to pharmaceutical chemistry, and hybrid quantum computers are used to speedup processes in the shipping, pharmaceutical, and energy industries. 

As new hardware technologies are developed, as well as the operating systems, software, and algorithms necessary to run them, those opportunities should only increase. Eventually, quantum computing will affect nearly every industry in Europe in some way. 

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