Connecting state and local government leaders
Colorado’s quantum innovation hub consortium will ensure minorities and workers in rural and low-income areas get a fair share of the millions of jobs they believe the hub will create.
Colorado’s vision for becoming a global leader in quantum computing got a boost on Monday when the Biden administration put the state’s quantum innovation hub consortium in line to receive tens of millions of dollars to develop new quantum industries.
But beyond potentially helping Colorado become a global player in the emerging technology, leaders of the state's initiative said being named one of 31 Regional Innovation and Technology Hubs will open the door for millions of workers without college degrees to get high-paying tech jobs.
In interviews, those involved in the consortium said they will be focusing on ensuring minorities and workers in rural and low-income areas get a fair share of the millions of jobs they believe the hub will create.
In so doing, Colorado’s initiative would reverse the exclusion of many people traditionally unable to participate in the tech sector, said Corban Tillemann-Dick, the chairman of the Elevate Quantum consortium, the partnership of businesses, educational institutions, community groups and the state’s economic development office that is aiming to expand the quantum computing industry in the state.
California may have benefitted from the growth of the software industry in their state, he said. “But they missed out in terms of diversity.”
“Most of the technology we use has been created by one homogenous group, and we need to change that,” said Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology. The nonprofit, which aims to encourage more girls and women to go into computing, is also working with the quantum consortium.
Racial inclusion is also essential for the new innovation hubs. In the 31 selected areas, Black people make up 15% of the population, and Latinos account for about 18%, wrote Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, in a blog post on Monday. However, those individuals hold a far lower percentage of tech jobs overall—just between 10% and 11%. The selected regional hubs all have the potential of increasing “racial inclusion” in the tech workforce, Muro noted.
Expanding the high-paying tech sector beyond California’s Silicon Valley and making the jobs that will be created by the innovation hubs more open to disadvantaged and minority groups are major aspects of Biden’s initiative.
The funding for the hubs comes from last year’s $54.2 billion CHIPS Act. While most of the money will go toward providing subsidies to encourage companies to increase the production of U.S.-manufactured semiconductors, the legislation also called for spending $10 billion over the next five years to fund 20 innovation hubs—like the quantum hub Colorado’s consortium is proposing.
After Monday’s announcement, Colorado’s Elevate Quantum consortium will now compete with the other initiatives around the country to expand research, develop and commercialize a wide range of advanced technologies including lithium battery development, advanced manufacturing and precision medicine. Colorado’s separate application to develop green energy was not selected as an innovation hub.
As part of the application process, the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration required the 192 hub applicants to detail how “the economic benefits of the project will be shared by all communities in the project area, including any underserved areas.”
In interviews, leaders of Colorado’s two initiatives said they have been developing a number of strategies to meet the administration’s goal as they try to find more workers for the expanding quantum and green energy industries.
Colorado already has the most quantum computing workers in the country, but there are only a few thousand, said Tillemann-Dick, CEO of Denver-based Maybell Quantum Industries.
“We want to make sure that as this ecosystem grows, it does so in an inclusive way,” he said, predicting the number of workers could swell into the millions.
According to a fact sheet from the initiative, 47% of the jobs created by the expansion of the quantum computing industry would not require a college degree. Jobs like fabrication or welding the frames of computers and soldering the wires would require only a community college or trade certificate. On average, jobs in the industry would pay $125,000.
The state’s community college system, which is also part of the quantum computing consortium, is working to create a curriculum that will help students find quantum jobs.
But key to diversifying the workforce, Tillemann-Dick said, is reaching out to communities that have been left out of the tech boom to let them know they have a future in the emerging technologies.
“We're realizing that as the industry grows, starting at community college or the university level is too late,” Tilleman-Dick, said. “So we're trying to reach out earlier so that kids in the K-12 space can be excited about this and realize that this is something they can do,” he said.
The consortium, for example, will be working with the rural East Grand County and West Grand County school districts on ways to teach students and their parents about quantum computing.
Quantum is hard to understand. It's hard to wrap your head around, you don't see yourself working in it,” Tillemann-Dick said.
“If a kid in Grand County says, ‘I'm excited about quantum physics and I want to be part of that,’ I don't want their parents to think, ‘Oh, this is the equivalent to trading Bitcoin,’” he said. “These are very different things. One of them is building the future of humanity. And the other is gambling in an interesting way,” he said.
“This is the first time in the country that there's outreach like that to rural communities to make sure that students in these communities can be aware of quantum, be inspired by quantum and see this as part of their future,” Tilleman-Dick said.
To ensure the state has a robust workforce pipeline, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced in September the state will be giving out $2.5 million in grants to schools and nonprofit organizations to increase apprenticeships across all industries.
The state’s bid to be a green energy technology hub, while not successful, still positions the sector for growth.
Wendy Lea, CEO of Energize Colorado, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing small business innovation in green energy, said earlier this month that the members of the consortium would continue to work together as it deals with the thousands of workers the industry will need.
Lee Wheeler-Berliner, managing director of the Colorado Workforce Development Council Office, said the state has been working with companies to “shift their internal cultural practices to ensure that they are a welcoming environment.”
One benefit of applying to be an innovation hub is that it “weaved together” different actors in the state, including clean energy companies, to discuss how to address the workforce shortage and make the industry more diverse, said Maluwa Behringer, executive director of industry partnerships for the Metropolitan State University of Denver, which has been working with the clean energy consortium.
Behringer said the tech industry must train and hire more low-income people, including some of the 90% of the university’s students who need to work to make ends meet.
“My university has been working with employers to let summer interns keep working part-time during the school year so that they will still be earning enough to be able to support themselves year-round,” she said, adding that most end up getting full-time jobs with the companies after they graduate.
Another issue confronting Colorado’s green energy industry is that many current employees will be retiring in the coming years, said Lu Córdova, the governor’s head of strategic planning and projects.
When we already have a worker shortage, upcoming retirements are like the headlight of an oncoming train, she said. “We really have to be creative about how we stop the flow of retiring.”
One idea the green energy consortium discussed, she said, is to encourage businesses to let retirees continue to work part-time. In addition, Cordova said workers who lose their jobs as the state transitions from coal and oil to clean energy should be trained to work in the growing green energy industry.
The consortium had planned to spend $5 million over 10 years to upskill and retrain underrepresented workers for green jobs, according to a fact sheet provided by the group.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Kery_Murakami