How Well Do AI Skills Pay Off?

With enterprise artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives exploding along with demand for machine learning and other skills, you might think associated salaries would be topping industry charts, but that's not so in a new report from careers site Dice.

In fact, in introducing the new Dice 2019 Salary Report, the company specifically used machine learning to characterize the current state of affairs: "The tech industry's notably low unemployment rate has created some issues for employers, especially when it comes to locking down highly specialized tech talent. Simply put, there aren't enough machine-learning specialists and IT security experts (to name two particularly in-demand roles) to go around."

So, with that characterization, one might think machine learning skills would be near the top of the report's salary list. But one would be wrong. Machine learning skills ranked No. 61 on that salary list. Artificial intelligence fared better, but still clocked in at only No. 18.

An average AI salary for 2018 was pegged at $120,709, while machine learning was $113,093. Both jobs showed no year-over-year percentage change in salaries.

In contrast, the No. 1 top-paying skill was the Go programming language, paying an average of $132,827, also basically the same as last year.

To be sure, the salary list's top echelons were populated by somewhat associated technologies, such as Big Data analytics and other data-related skills, as exemplified by the top 10 list:

Top-Paying Skills
[Click on image for larger view.] Top-Paying Skills (source: Dice)

Taking a look at other recent industry reports shows positions tightly tied to AI are indeed faring well, as data scientist was recently named the best job in America for 2019 by another careers site, Glassdoor.

Another report indicated machine learning was the top topic on the minds of GitHub users, while a LinkedIn study found machine learning dominating the list of the best emerging jobs.

Yet another recent report that polled developers indicated they thought deep learning was among the new technologies best poised for real-world adoption.

As far as the salary question, a data analysis conducted last year by compensation specialist PayScale for publication on the CNBC Make It media site pegged a median salary for a machine learning engineer to be $118,000. A data science manager, meanwhile, earned a median salary of $147,000, according to that study.

However, as Dice reiterated in its new report, developers and other tech specialists take many other criteria into account, such as job satisfaction and work-life balance, which might be important information for enterprises competing for AI, machine learning, Big Data and other talent.

"70 percent of tech professionals would take the same job with a different company for as little as a 15 percent salary increase," the report says. "Offering programs that boost job satisfaction may be just as important as hard cash to attract and retain talent."

Nevertheless, salaries remain the focal point of this type of survey, still more important than training, work-life balance, perks such as remote work and so on to the tech pro respondents, who seem to have a strong developer presence.

And on that salary front, Dice said wages remained stagnant despite low unemployment.

"Average annual salaries in 2018 remained flat, at $93,244. That's a mere 0.6 percent increase from 2017," Dice said in a post last week (Jan. 29). "No wonder some 68 percent of respondents to Dice's survey said they'd change employers to receive higher compensation. (Some 47 percent said they'd switch jobs for better working conditions, while 34 percent said they'd do so for more responsibility; another 22 percent thought they might lose their current position, necessitating a job switch.)

"But even if companies can't (or won't) find the funding to pay tech pros radically bigger salaries, they can still offer enticing non-salary options such as training and education, remote-working benefits, and flexible schedules."

Despite those non-salary concerns, "increased compensation" was listed as the primary motivator provided by employers in 2018 (17 percent of respondents), followed by "flexible work location/work remote" (15 percent), and "flexible work hours," which tied with "more interesting or challenging work" at 10 percent of respondents.

And, for those companies who can't or won't pay more to their tech pros, other motivating factors behind higher compensation (68 percent), were "better working conditions" (47 percent), "more responsibility" (34 percent), "anticipate losing current position" (22 percent), "shorter commute" (18 percent) and "relocation" (13 percent).

The report also investigates the disparities between what benefits tech pros find important and the benefits they have. That led Dice to advise organizations that promoting training and education is a good way to attract top tech talent.

Top-Paying Skills
[Click on image for larger view.] Top-Paying Skills (source: Dice)

"In 2018, 71 percent of tech professionals said that training and education are important to them, but only 40 percent currently have company-paid training and education -- that's a 31 percent gap between what's desired and what's offered," the report said.

"This gap is further illustrated by the fact that far more tech professionals (45 percent) who are satisfied with their job receive training, while only 28 percent of those who are dissatisfied with their job receive training."

Art Zeile, CEO of DHI Group Inc., the parent company to Dice, also weighed in: "Offering skill-enhancing training keeps employees at the top of their game and could ease the minds of professionals wanting to feel motivated and invested,"

Other highlights of the report include:

  • Salary satisfaction has declined over the years, with 57 percent of respondents reporting they were satisfied in 2017, which has dropped to 48 percent in 2018.
  • Confidence in finding a favorable position next year increased from 60 percent of respondents expressing such confidence in the 2017 survey to 63 percent in the 2018 survey.
  • The average U.S. salary was $93,244, up 0.6 percent from the previous year.
  • Tech management positions topped the salary list at $142,063. At No. 25 was PC/service technician, $41,310.
  • 21 percent of respondents said they would prefer to work remotely; 23 percent said they never work remotely.
  • 33 percent of respondents said they would take up to a 10 percent pay cut to work remotely; 48 percent said they wouldn't take a pay cut.
  • Reasons for tech pros seeking a new job are "seeking higher salary" (68 percent), "seeking better working conditions" (47 percent) and "seeking more responsibility" (34 percent).
  • "Lack of recognition" was cited as the No. 1 reason for employee burnout (36 percent), followed by "workload" (35 percent), "unchallenging/monotony" (28 percent), "work-life balance" (26 percent) and "friction with boss" (18 percent).

The report also covers certifications, top tech metro areas by salary and other factors, top industries by salary, and salaries broken down by state, level and experience.

"Tech pros may find their managers more willing to negotiate over flexible scheduling (to name just one non-monetary benefit) than salary, especially if a company is already wrestling with tight budgets," Dice said. "As we head deeper in 2019, consider what you might want besides money. Your boss could prove surprisingly amenable to your request."

The survey report is based on the polling of 10,780 employed technology professionals responding to an online survey between Oct. 22, 2018, and Dec. 13, 2018. The survey was publicized in multiple ways. Full methodology is listed at the bottom of the free report, which comes in a PDF download upon providing registration information.

About the Author

David Ramel is an editor and writer for Converge360.