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Inside Big Tech's nasty battle for coveted AI talent

Aaron Mok   

Inside Big Tech's nasty battle for coveted AI talent
  • Hiring for AI talent is ruthless — and Big Tech may be to blame.
  • Recruiters say tech giants offer high salaries to talent that smaller firms can't match.

The fight to hire the best AI talent is heating up as companies large and small compete in the race to create the best products in the booming sector. It looks like the biggest players in the tech industry with the biggest bank balances are winning out right now.

Last week, Mustafa Suleyman, the cofounder of Google's DeepMind, left his startup Inflection AI to lead tech giant Microsoft's consumer AI division as CEO. A week before that, Aravind Srinivas, the CEO of Perplexity, said on a podcast he couldn't poach a top AI researcher at Meta because his startup didn't have enough GPUs, Nvidia's pricey and in-demand chips. Following Sam Altman's brief ouster from OpenAI last November, Salesforce tried to lure researchers away from the ChatGPT-maker by offering to match their compensation packages.

This carousel of labor between companies illustrates the high demand for employees who can build and train large language models — key to getting AI to actually produce the results firms want. But recruiters say that startups and smaller firms struggle to hire workers with technical and non-technical AI skills, with some tech execs believing Big Tech is squeezing them out of the sector.

"Companies like Meta are stealing away and holding talent," J.T. O'Donnell, the founder and CEO of career-coaching service Work It Daily, told Business Insider. And "smaller companies are not going to be able to lure away that talent because they don't have what they need," O'Donnell says.

Big Tech is willing to pay up to a million for AI talent

One reason it's so difficult for smaller companies to get workers with the right skills: it's expensive.

"AI talents are some of the most highly compensated in today's job market," Alex Libre, the cofounder and principal recruiter of Einstellen Talent, a service that matches job candidates with generative AI startups, told BI.

And generally, bigger, more established companies tend to offer the most money. He's seen major firms offer at least $100,000 for junior positions and nearly seven-figure compensation packages for high-level specialists. That's bad news for smaller businesses with less financial firepower.

Still, according to Libre, startups are now starting to be "extremely generous" with their offers to early-stage AI hires to compete with the tech giants, including offering equity.

"I've seen a founding machine learning engineer get 4% of the startup's outstanding shares, which used to be completely unheard of," Libre told BI.

There are not enough workers with AI expertise.

But uneven financial incentives aren't the only factor in the battle for workers. Many job applicants simply don't have the skills for the job.

"There is undoubtedly a shortage in AI talent," Libre says.

Typically, candidates for generative AI roles include "highly skilled' programmers and data scientists with advanced degrees who are well-versed in programming languages like Python, Libre says. They're also familiar with deep learning software libraries like TensorFlow, Ray, and PyTorch.

However, the recruiter says companies now want to hire copywriters, product managers, and other professionals who may not have a technical background — as long as they have a strong grasp of AI. That includes knowing how to apply the technology to workflows, crafting quality prompts, and understanding bot-generated outputs.

"This combination of skills is not as abundant as the industry needs and not as abundant as most people think," Libre says.

Flavien Coronini, a recruiter at Hugging Face, agreed that a talent shortage coupled with Big Tech's sector dominance has made it tough to fill roles at the open-source AI startup.

"As a rapidly growing startup in a niche area like AI, we face stiff competition from larger companies and more established players in the industry," Coronini told BI. "Additionally, the skills and expertise required for our team are very specific, and a limited pool of talent is available with the necessary experience and knowledge."

Companies are just getting started with AI.

Still, recruiters who spoke to BI acknowledge that generative AI is still fairly new, and companies need time to catch up — but will.

Some do so by hiring a chief AI officer, leveraging consultants, and having internal discussions on how the technology can be deployed across the company.

Workers, too, are starting to learn more about how to use generative AI through their employers' skills training programs and external online courses. Hugging Face now offers public educational resources such as videos and tutorials to help developers learn about natural language processing, among other related topics.

Once employers and employees understand the technology more, filling AI-related roles with the right talent may get easier.

"It's a journey," O'Donnell said. "Anytime you have a new skill set, it's like the wild, wild west, and everyone's racing to get to the cream of the crop regarding hiring."

But for now, a juicy paycheck and an already established AI setup — whether that's having enough GPUs or other talented workers — may be just what a company needs to offer to secure the ideal candidate. And that leans in favor of big, rich players like Microsoft and Meta.

"Somebody who's really into AI is going to hold out for an employer that will have what they need to be successful," she says.

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