By Ann Saphir
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Dozens of employers looking to hire the next generation of tech employees descended on the University of California, Berkeley in September to meet students at an electrical engineering and computer science career fair.
Boris Yue, 20, was one of thousands of student attendees, threading his way among fellow job-seekers to meet recruiters.
But Yue wasn’t worried about so much potential competition. While the job outlook for those with computer skills is generally good, Yue is in an even more rarified category: he is studying artificial intelligence, working on technology that teaches machines to learn and think in ways that mimic human cognition.
His choice of specialty makes it unlikely he will have difficulty finding work. "There is no shortage of machine learning opportunities," he said.
Artificial intelligence is now being used in an ever-expanding array of products: cars that drive themselves; robots that identify and eradicate weeds; computers able to distinguish dangerous skin cancers from benign moles; and smart locks, thermostats, speakers and digital assistants that are bringing the technology into homes. At Georgia Tech, students interact with digital teaching assistants made possible by AI for an online course in machine learning.
The expanding applications for AI have also created a shortage of qualified workers in the field. Although schools across the country are adding classes, increasing enrollment and developing new programs to accommodate student demand, there are too few potential employees with training or experience in AI.
That has big consequences.
Too few AI-trained job-seekers has slowed hiring and impeded growth at some companies, recruiters and would-be employers told Reuters. It may also be delaying broader adoption of a technology that some economists say could spur U.S. economic growth by boosting productivity, currently growing at only about half its pre-crisis pace.
Andrew Shinn, a chip design manager at Marvell Technology Group who was recruiting interns and new grads at UC Berkeley's career fair, said his company has had trouble hiring for AI jobs.
"We have had difficulty filling jobs for a number of years," he said. "It does slow things down."
“COMING OF AGE”
Many economists believe AI has the potential to change the economy’s basic trajectory in the same way that, say, electricity or the steam engine did.
"I do think artificial intelligence is … coming of age," said St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard in an interview. "This will diffuse through the whole economy and will change all of our lives.”
But the speed of the transformation will depend in part on the availability of technical talent.
A shortage of trained workers "will definitely slow the rate of diffusion of the new technology and any productivity gains that accompany it," said Chad Syverson, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
U.S. government data does not track job openings or hires in artificial intelligence specifically, but online job postings tracked by jobsites including Indeed, Ziprecruiter and Glassdoor show job openings for AI-related positions are surging. AI job postings as a percentage of overall job postings at Indeed nearly doubled in the past two years, according to data provided by the company. Searches on Indeed for AI jobs, meanwhile increased just 15 percent. (For a graphic, please see https://tmsnrt.rs/2CEi4eG
Universities are trying to keep up. Applicants to UC Berkeley's doctoral program in electrical engineering and computer science numbered 300 a decade ago, but by last year had surged to 2,700, with more than half of applicants interested in AI, according to professor Pieter Abbeel. In response, the school tripled its entering class to 30 in the fall of 2017.
At the University of Illinois, professor Mark Hasegawa-Johnson last year tripled the enrollment cap on the school's intro AI course to 300. The extra 200 seats were filled in 24 hours, he said.
Carnegie Mellon University this fall began offering the nation's first undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence. "We feel strongly that the demand is there," said Reid Simmons, who directs CMU's new program. "And we are trying to supply the students to fill that demand."
Still, a fix for the supply-demand mismatch is probably five years out, says Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor. The company has algorithms that trawl job postings on company websites, and their data show AI-related job postings having doubled in the last 11 months. "The supply of people moving into this field is way below demand," he said.
A JOB-SEEKER’S MARKET
The demand has driven up wages. Glassdoor estimates that average salaries for AI-related jobs advertised on company career sites rose 11 percent between October 2017 and September 2018 to $123,069 annually.
Michael Solomon, whose New York-based 10X Management rents out technologists to companies for specific projects, says his top AI engineers now command as much as $1000 an hour, more than triple the pay just five years ago, making them one of the company's two highest paid categories, along with blockchain experts.
Liz Holm, a materials science and engineering professor at Carnegie Melon, saw the increased demand first-hand in May, when one of her graduating PhD students, who used machine learning methods for her research, was overwhelmed with job offers, none of which were in materials science and all of them AI-related. Eventually the student took a job with Proctor & Gamble, where she uses AI to figure out where to put items on store shelves around the globe. "Companies are really hungry for these folks right now," Holm said.
Mark Maybury, an artificial intelligence expert who was hired last year as Stanley Black and Decker's first chief technology officer, agreed. The firm is embedding AI into the design and production of tools, he said, though he said details are not yet public.
"Have we been able to find the talent we need? Yes," he said. "Is it expensive? Yes."
The crunch is great news for job-seeking students with AI skills. In addition to bumping their pay and giving them more choice, they often get job offers well before they graduate.
Derek Brown, who studied artificial intelligence and cognitive science as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, got a full-time post-graduation job offer from Salesforce at the start of his senior year last fall. He turned it down in favor of Facebook, where he started this past July.
(Additional reporting by Jane Lee; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Sue Horton)