May 9, 2024 | Potomac Quantum Innovation Center

Quantum Talent Development & Retention: A Strategy for National Security

May 9, 2024 | Potomac Quantum Innovation Center

Quantum Talent Development & Retention: A Strategy for National Security

In this era of unprecedented technological advancement and global interconnectivity, quantum information science and technology (QIST) has surfaced as a pivotal game-changer, offering the potential to revolutionize industries, fuel innovation, and enhance our nation’s international standing. Failure to establish U.S. leadership in quantum science and technology would expose the nation to significant economic threats. However, our ability to lead significantly depends on the availability of talent in quantum and quantum-adjacent fields. Like our experiences with other technological advancements, a workforce with the necessary expertise and understanding to develop, apply and use the technology is crucial for innovation, adoption of new capabilities, and risk mitigation.

To better understand the degree of quantum’s impact, consider the potential risk scenarios if adversary states (or criminal network) actors achieve quantum superiority first. Such a development would give them unparalleled advantages, allowing them to easily decrypt sensitive information, compromising national security and putting classified data at risk. They would disrupt critical communication and energy systems, infiltrate key national infrastructure, and hinder military operations, posing a significant threat to the nation and our allies, defense, and stability. Economically, such a new quantum prowess would enable adversaries to accelerate their innovation programs, secure more global patents, and increase other international investments, potentially shifting the balance of economic power. The United States, in this scenario, would find itself struggling to catch up, facing the risk of falling behind in direct and quantum-adjacent science and technology, jeopardizing its position as a world leader. This scenario illustrates the broad array of disciplines that must be “quantum-aware.”  Developers, intelligence analysts, law enforcement professionals, users in life sciences, energy, financial services, commerce, and cybersecurity professionals must be aware of technology, its power, and its vulnerabilities.

Investments and advancements in quantum science and technology have increased exponentially over the last few decades. However, the workforce pipeline has not kept up with demand – not only in the higher skills but also in the quantum-adjacent and supporting skills, such as computer science and math. Given the industry’s nascency, the studies and plans to address this shortfall lack sufficient quantification. To develop a proficient quantum and quantum-adjacent workforce that can drive national and global innovation and security, the work needs to start with K-12 and include developing, retaining, and timely matching skills to jobs in the workforce. The scope of the need spans scientific, technical, and engineering capabilities along with aligned functions for the industry, such as education, business, marketing and communications, operations, and support functions. Multi-faceted programs must be threaded to align lifelong learning capabilities, including upskilling and enabling experienced resources in quantum-adjacent domains. To do this, we need new programs designed specifically with this strategic purpose, like “Pathways to Quantum.”

This initiative provides the building blocks for holistic capabilities for a national quantum workforce. “Pathways to Quantum” is a cutting-edge initiative to educate rising high school seniors in quantum science and technology. It delivers a foundational educational program developed by Connected DMV and George Mason University in collaboration with K-12 public school systems in the Greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. Students engage in courses that lay the groundwork for grasping quantum concepts, followed by a experiential learning segment and a summer-long project with industry and subject matter mentors. The students explore diverse workplaces in the burgeoning quantum and quantum-adjacent ecosystem, including business, marketing, communications, policy, and research. This immersive approach not only introduces students to the array of quantum career possibilities but also provides them with valuable knowledge and skills, offering an early glimpse of quantum opportunities before they embark on their academic journey and guiding them toward pursuing studies in this field. The 2023 cohort of 24 students was selected from over 250 applicants who submitted personal essays and recommendation letters as part of the selection process. The 2023 outcome included the development of a quantum student network to connect/develop quantum clubs across high schools in the region and connect them to undergraduate quantum resources and clubs nationally. 2024 will consist of a means to introduce the concept to middle schoolers.

To maintain competitiveness, expanding the talent pipeline as extensively as possible and replicating and implementing similar programs throughout the United States is imperative. The National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA), reauthorized in 2023 and pending passage, emphasizes the workforce as a critical area requiring cross-sector partnerships and federal leadership. Activities such as expanding trainee programs to include both reskilling and upskilling are government-sponsored internships, curricula development, expanded accessibility to underserved and underrepresented communities, and greater exposure at all levels of education, including K-12 and career and technical education facilities all reinforce the importance of building new pipelines and expanding existing ones. Pathways to Quantum was developed with this intent in mind, and it provides a model to scale and apply to meet the challenge. Establishing the Quantum Reskilling, Education, and Workforce (QREW) Coordination Hub, called for in the NQIA 2023, can provide the national nexus for separate regional efforts to coordinate.

The need is clear, direction has been provided in NQIA 2023, and regional initiatives exist. Congress and the Administration can provide the accelerant by reflecting this priority in budget priorities, prioritizing and resourcing regional funding pools to support curricula development and internships at a state and local level, and proceeding with the award of the grant to establish the QREW with a clear direction to engage regional efforts and support their ability to scale and sustain.

The federal government’s funding priorities have focused on developing basic science and research skills and generating higher-skilled researchers with Master’s and Doctorate degrees. We now need to expand the scale of this effort as the NQIA 2023 envisions. By investing in our quantum workforce, we secure our nation’s future and shape the destiny of technology and innovation globally. A quantum future awaits, and our responsibility is to pave the way.

Dr. Georgianna “George” Shea serves as chief technologist at FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI) and Transformative Cyber Innovation Lab (TCIL). George Thomas is the President of Connected DMV, where he brings the academic, industry, nonprofit and government sectors together to foster talent, economic growth and positive social impact.