Indian companies are shelling out huge premiums for artificial intelligence (AI) talent, as competition intensifies in the job market for a skillset that is hard to find.
Everyone from consumer Internet players and technology companies to financial services and automakers is betting big on AI, but the local talent pool for them to tap into is extremely limited. The demand-supply mismatch is driving up salaries. AI professionals are getting 60-80% hikes while switching jobs, compared with an average of 20-30% in other skill areas.
Even an entry-level AI role can command a 70%-plus premium over that of a plain vanilla computer science (CS) engineer, say recruitment firms and industry experts. Professionals with around 8-10 years of experience, with two-three years of that in AI, can easily get annual packages upwards of Rs 50 lakh, going up to Rs 1 crore and more while for those in senior strategic roles, salaries are up to Rs 2.5-3 crore.
“The entry salary of a CS engineer is Rs 3-3.5 lakh while that of an entry AI role is Rs 5.5-6 lakh,” said Anurag Malik, partner, people advisory services at EY India. “The majority of people with AI specialisation in India got into the area over the last two-three years. The maximum supply gap is of middle-level folks with 5-7 years of experience, as they are just not available.”
According to a recent report by online and hybrid education company Great Learning, there are only about 40,000 AI professionals in India. The average AI experience of Indian professionals is just three years, with almost 67% of them having joined or transitioned into their current roles in the past two years. In contrast, around 57% organisations that are hiring for AI in India are looking for candidates with more than five years of experience. The highest demand is for professionals with skills in natural language processing and generation, image-based analytics, chatbots and machine learning. “Due to the limited talent pool, salaries are going up,” said Ratna Gupta, director of ABC Consultants.
Prince Augustin, executive vice-president group human capital & leadership development at Mahindra & Mahindra, said the group has a large number of new hires in AI and other emerging technologies in various businesses. Since the field is very new and fast changing, it is difficult to find veterans in this space and hence there is a lot of demand, he said. From an India perspective, since a large part of AI clients are overseas, there seems to be even more willingness and ability from many companies to pay over the top, said Rakesh Barik, partner, Deloitte India. At many companies, it has been classified as a “hot skill”, which represents the highest band within the consulting skillsets.
Barik estimates that there could not be more than a quarter of a million AI practitioners and engineers worldwide and the demand would have already surpassed more than a million. Adding to the problem is the low churn from India’s talent institutions and universities. “It is now a common practice of hiring a senior talent or a Ph.D to build a dream team underneath him or her. And these one-off hires are not coming in cheap and actually is more challenging,” he said.
Recruiters say it is difficult to fill roles across levels because of the sheer number of options available to candidates. A hedge fund looking to hire an analyst with two years of AI experience for a machine learning-based trading model has had the position lying vacant for nearly 4-5 months even though it’s paying `40 lakh for a fairly junior role. Another ecommerce biggie, looking to staff an AI team under its chief data scientist, is struggling to find talent, said a recruiter.
At the senior level, the problem is more pronounced. “There is a huge dearth of proven talent at a senior level with 10 years of AI experience. And everyone is competing for that. In most cases, one has to look abroad,” said Anuj Roy, managing partner, FIDIUS Advisory. “Jumps of even 100% while switching jobs are not uncommon. Even IT consulting companies are paying huge premiums for strategy people to come in and design roadmaps to implement AI in more processes,” said GC Jayaprakash, executive director at RGF Executive Search.