Parents used to advise their children to pursue careers in law, banking, or the “Big Four” for quick riches, but if the past 12 months are any indication, the next generation of graduates is flocking to data science and machine learning. With PhD students commanding salaries of up to $400k right out of university, and top executives raking in over $1 million, the AI talent market has become a frenzy. Let’s delve into the wild world of AI talent in 2023.
The AI awakening in corporate boardrooms
When OpenAI unleashed its wildly popular chatbot, ChatGPT, in November last year, it was a wake-up call for many top executives at large corporations. Veena Marr, a digital and tech consultant at executive search firm Spencer Stuart, describes it as a moment of panic: “Oh my goodness, have we missed the boat? What are we doing?” Many companies had discussed AI around their boardroom tables years ago, but the topic had slipped from their radar.
Today, there’s a mix of excitement and confusion among companies as they grapple with the need to incorporate AI into their strategies. Andrea Splendiani, EMEA AI recruitment lead for Egon Zehnder, notes, “Everybody knows they need to have AI as a top priority. Not everybody knows exactly what that means, especially in terms of talent.”
The diversity of AI talent demands
The type of AI talent sought after varies greatly depending on the organization’s nature. Larger, less technically focused enterprises are eager to hire senior AI product leaders. These professionals bring experience from AI-native companies and understand the intricacies of working with AI models. They can differentiate between foundation models, comprehend the potential of different APIs, and anticipate future developments.
Deep in-house data science expertise is not always necessary for most corporate AI products, as fine-tuning models is a technically demanding process that is often unnecessary. This creates a demand for technically qualified machine learning specialists, typically those with relevant PhDs or experience from top AI research labs. These specialists are especially sought after by tech and AI scale-ups who can seamlessly integrate their skills into their ecosystems.
Emerging AI roles
While traditional AI roles like “prompt engineer” or chief AI officer haven’t seen a significant increase in demand, there is a growing need for professionals skilled in maintaining AI models once they are in place. Niall Wharton, associate director of data recruitment firm Xcede, highlights the importance of experienced LLM (machine learning and language modeling) professionals who can not only create products from AI models but also maintain them. This need has given rise to new roles like ML ops engineers.
The lucrative AI salaries
The allure of AI careers is not just about the cutting-edge work but also the lucrative salaries. Sam Burman, global managing partner of AI talent at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, reveals that fresh PhD graduates from top U.S. schools can command salaries of up to $400k right out of university. In Europe, the range is typically between $100k and $200k. The top universities for recruiting AI talent in Europe include Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL in the UK, EPFL, ETH in Switzerland, TUM in Germany, and the universities of Ecole Polytechnique and ENS in France.
For professionals with experience at top AI labs, the rewards are even greater. Some are offered staggering salaries of $800k by recruiters, reflecting the scarcity of top-tier AI talent.
Guns for hire: Project-based AI specialists
In addition to traditional employment, many AI specialists are now opting for fractional, project-based roles to maximize their earnings. This shift allows them to choose the AI projects they want to engage with and presents the opportunity to earn more money. These projects often span three months or longer, but there are also “SWAT team” projects with urgent requirements that last around six weeks.
The rates for these time-sensitive projects are described as an “open cheque book” due to the extreme scarcity of AI talent in the market. As the demand for AI expertise continues to rise, these project-based roles provide specialists with unprecedented flexibility and income potential.
The constantly evolving AI talent market
The AI talent market is in a constant state of flux, with recruiters and companies alike adapting to the rapidly changing landscape. As AI reshapes industries and becomes a driving force in innovation, the competition for top talent remains fierce. With salaries reaching unprecedented heights, both AI professionals and the industry as a whole are thriving in this AI gold rush.
The AI talent market of 2023 is marked by soaring salaries, diverse talent demands, and the emergence of new roles to support AI ecosystems. Graduates and seasoned professionals alike are flocking to the field, driven by the promise of financial rewards and the opportunity to shape the future of technology.