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Members of the country's tech community say finding staff who can develop AI-based products or use them to drive efficiencies is a priority as the global race to take advantage of AI deepens.

"Everyone is looking for people who understand how to use AI," said Jenny Yang, a senior advisor at the MaRS innovation hub in Toronto, who helps startups navigate the challenges of growing the business and commercializing their products.

"Some are companies that want to use (AI chatbot) ChatGPT themselves directly ... and then there are companies who are trying to really hire data scientists, who want to build AI products."

Job postings show Porter Airlines recently sought an AI engineer in Toronto "to solve a wide range of complex problems" and pharmaceuticals giant Johnson & Johnson wanted a senior data scientist to "stay on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence." 

Reviews platform Yelp was on the lookout for a senior machine learning engineer in Canada capable of "turning raw data into valuable signals," while beverage giant Keurig Dr Pepper Canada wanted an associate data scientist in Montreal with an "interest in artificial intelligence."

Many of the jobs focus on generative AI — a type of machine learning capable of generating text, images and other content. This form of AI has exploded in popularity since the November 2022 release of ChatGPT, a chatbot from San Francisco-based OpenAI that can rapidly turn simple prompts into text-like essays and speeches.

ChatGPT's debut kick-started a race between tech titans, including Google and Microsoft, to innovate with AI and inspired other firms to consider how the tech could transform their businesses.

Now job listings show companies, including prominent firms like Qualcomm and J.D. Power along with startups, universities and law firms, have all been soliciting applications for interns, consultants, engineers, scientists and prompters with AI and machine learning skills.

But many believe AI's impact on hiring is still a long way from its peak.

Employment search website Indeed found generative AI — a type of machine learning capable of generating text, images and other content — was mentioned in 0.07 per cent of Canadian job postings at the end of November.

However, 17 per cent of postings for machine learning engineers specifically, which Indeed calls "the quintessential AI job," and five per cent of data scientist jobs mentioned generative AI. 

Openings for software engineers and full-stack developers also increasingly saw the term crop up, said Brendon Bernard, senior economist at Indeed.

"I'd be surprised if (generative AI in job postings) doesn't keep growing and we don't see it in more and more job types," he said.

Alik Sokolov, co-founder and chief executive of Montreal-based AI company for investment management Responsibli, has found more companies have become interested in AI over the last year, changing some of the criteria businesses seek when hiring.

"I think it's going to be a very different mix of skills for someone going into the field in 2024 than it was, say, for me going into the field around 2013..." he said.

"Just looking at the resumé I had when I was hired at Deloitte, I wouldn't be hired at Deloitte today or Responsibli. The bar has just grown."

Sokolov and Yang agree that data scientists with AI skills tend to be more in demand these days, though developers are also being taught or expected to use tools to build AI.

"You don't have to be a hardcore research data scientist with a PhD anymore, whereas I think five years ago even, you had to kind of be like that," Yang said.

"Now you're seeing more traditional software engineers building AI products and it's because of the availability of better and better tools."

Rob Toews, a partner at AI-focused venture capital firm Radical Ventures, has predicted chief AI officers will become part of the C-Suite at large enterprises this year, while others foresee the rise of prompters — professionals trained to put instructions into AI systems to elicit the most effective and desired responses.

But Sokolov and Yang agree prompter jobs are likely to be short-lived because workers from a wide swath of backgrounds can easily be taught to integrate prompting into their work with a bit of training or experimentation.

"We're not looking for a full-time prompt engineer, but instead, prompt engineering is something that's done by almost everyone in our company to varying degrees," Sokolov said.

He is in the process of hiring a vice-president of AI, who will handle how the company approaches the technologies' risks, and several data scientists, who will take on prompt engineering responsibilities.

So far, he's managed to hire almost completely from Canada, which has long had a reputation as an AI leader as companies and researchers exploring the technology have coalesced in Montreal and Toronto.

A September study from Deloitte found when one analyzes per capita venture capital investments in AI, Canada ranks third among G7 countries, trailing only the U.S. and U.K.

Canada also had the highest five-year average year-over-year growth rate in AI talent concentration of all G7 nations between 2017 and last year, the report said.

But Yang has recently seen some of Canada's top data scientists heading for the U.S.

"There's just better money, more opportunities, so we are getting the brain drain for AI talent," she said, noting Amazon and other big tech companies can pay $500,000 a year for top AI data scientists.

"You need bigger companies (in Canada) to be able to afford the talent, when it is high in demand."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2024.

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