Want the best new AI recruits? Spell out what your social impact is

How to hire and retain elite AI talent
‍Laura Fink

Laura Fink is VP of People at the AI drug discovery start-up Healx where she leads the team overseeing culture and talent acquisition.

Artificial intelligence engineers have never been in more demand. Indeed, Chinese tech giant Tencent has estimated that there are around 300,000 AI experts worldwide, but millions of roles available. This supply-demand issue has meant that average salaries for AI roles have dramatically increased, with the big giants like Facebook, Amazon and DeepMind being able to offer well into the six-figure sums for roles.  

It’s no secret that the largest software companies can offer salaries and benefits packages worth far more up-front than most start-ups can. But increasingly, salary is no longer the biggest decision-making factor when it comes to a candidate in the field accepting a job offer. More and more, AI experts are looking for roles where they can make a societal difference – for the better. In 2022, social impact is what matters, not how well stocked your free canteen is.

Sure, equity and stock options are proven incentives when it’s not possible to match salary, encouraging staff to stick around for a potential exit or IPO. So too is the lure of start-up agility, and the possibility for a new starter to make an immediate and tangible impact on a company’s trajectory, and not merely become another cog in the machine. But in my first-hand experience, over the last eighteen months, social impact has moved right up there as a selling point for new hires. In fact, it’s often the first thing candidates enquire about when we ask if they have any questions for us as an employer.  

Social impact has always been central to our mission ever since Healx was founded in 2014. We use AI to discover new therapies for some of the 7,000 known rare diseases out there – 95% of which don’t have an approved treatment. But what we’re seeing now, more than ever, is that candidates are vetting us at the interview stage for this. It’s not just a selling point for us to stress to them, but rather a deal breaker for candidates when they arrive for their first interview. Interestingly, almost two thirds of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding to take on a role, and won’t join if a company doesn’t have a strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy.

It’s not hard to see what may have triggered this shift. Since the spring of 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with the job market. Lockdowns and restrictions caused devastating layoffs and economic retraction, reducing vacancies by as much as 70% in the UK, whilst those fortunate enough to remain in gainful employment remained where they were, unwilling to risk a move in such a difficult climate.

That’s since been followed by a huge swing in the other direction as economies have opened up and people have adjusted back to normality. Four million Americans alone quit their job last July according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The result: a fast-moving job market where the most promising candidates are enjoying more offers than ever.

This trend’s been dubbed ‘the Great Resignation’, which is perhaps not all that useful as it omits to point out that most of these people leaving their jobs are often taking – or creating – them elsewhere at the same time. It’s these candidates who are enjoying the increasing clout to assess potential employers on new factors.

It’s not just a matter of supply and demand however. Too many people have suffered through COVID and watched others do so as well. We’ve all now seen first hand how limiting life can be for those that don't have access to an effective treatment or proper medication, and seen how tragically short life can be.

This has caused many people to re-evaluate what their contribution to society is. “I want to move to a company that does good for others” is a phrase that we've been seeing a lot of recently when speaking to people in the AI field. Because of our mission, more people are open to having conversations with us. Indeed, using AI to find treatments for patients with rare diseases is now the kind of differentiated societal impact that allows Healx to punch above its weight in terms of attracting AI experts.

But the seismic shift to remote working (up to 25 percent of the workforce in some developed nations can now work remotely, a McKinsey report found) caused by the global pandemic is also undoubtedly a factor in this trend.  

Offering flexible ways to work is vital for growing companies, with 70% of businesses now planning to offer some form of remote or hybrid work. It’s a selling point on its own, and certainly something we’re proud of offering to our team. But it’s also having a knock-on effect in how jobseekers evaluate what they want next from their career.

If you can work anywhere, suddenly, salary doesn’t matter quite so much if you don’t have to pay San Francisco or London rent prices. If you can develop your career from your hometown, a cottage in the countryside, or a holiday Airbnb, and still field multiple job offers, purpose and impact will matter more than it did, and salary less.  

Social impact is going to be crucial for AI companies as more and more questions are asked about accountability. Left unchecked, AI can all too readily perpetuate systemic bias and the European Union is bringing its own legislation and regulatory framework in response to these growing public concerns. Being able to clearly show the social benefit, not just the profit, that an AI start-up brings, is going to be more important than ever – for companies and their potential new hires.  

Not every company can do that explicitly. Some software start-ups exist to develop new platforms, or simply save time out of busy customers’ days. None of this is any less true regardless of your purpose however. A strong corporate social responsibility strategy is something no company or any size should be without.  

Whether your AI start-up is focused on biotech breakthroughs or helping save minutes out of people’s day by automation, show what your start-up will do for everyone, not just its customers, shareholders or staff. See what conversations it opens up.

Written by
‍Laura Fink
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February 17, 2022