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Business trends

Big pay and acquisitions catch on as Japan fights for AI talent

Sony and Docomo among employers offering premium salaries for tech jobs

Students at Konan University in Kobe experiment with robots that use artificial intelligence to perform comedy acts. AI talent is in demand in Japan. (Photo by Hiromasa Matsuura)

TOKYO -- Japanese companies are spending more money to secure the best and the brightest in fields like artificial intelligence as the hunt for highly skilled tech workers grows more challenging.

Among them is Sony, which plans to pay standout new hires in technology up to 20% more starting this fiscal year.

"The environment has clearly changed over the last two or three years as more companies are willing to pay big salaries for employees with specialized skills," a Sony human resources officer said of the initiative.

Demand for AI engineers, data scientists and cybersecurity experts is surging across industries, overwhelming supply. Japan was short 220,000 information technology workers in 2018, data from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry shows. In 2030, the ministry sees unfilled positions for 550,000 workers in cutting-edge IT subfields alone.

Companies are increasingly looking outside their organizations for such talent, and many are dangling generous terms. Wireless carrier NTT Docomo will recruit workers with AI and other expertise starting this summer, offering up to 30 million yen ($276,900) -- more than triple the average annual pay at the company.

These jobs will be on annual contracts, and compensation will be set on an individual basis. Current Docomo employees will be invited to apply as well.

Specialized workers in short supply, such as data analysts and system engineers, command higher remuneration. Data scientists and data analysts changing jobs were set to make 8 million yen to 15 million yen a year at their new positions in 2018, according to recruitment consultancy Robert Walters Japan. The upper end of this range jumped about 4 million yen, or more than 30%, from 2016.

Similarly, the higher end of the range for system development project managers increased 1 million yen, or about 7%, in just two years. Pay will likely continue climbing at least 10% to 20%, Robert Walters Japan predicts.

Acquisitions present another way of securing tech talent. A subsidiary of electronics maker Kyocera, Kyocera Communication Systems, acquired Tokyo AI developer Rist in January. Rist develops algorithms that use deep learning and machine learning to analyze images and data. Advertising agency Dentsu has also bought an AI startup.

"Having a company with AI expertise as a subsidiary confers an advantage," said Norihiro Kuretani, a Dentsu executive officer.

But retaining tech talent poses another challenge, especially at companies where digital technology represents a new departure. New hires may choose to work elsewhere if they feel that management does not appreciate the importance of IT operations.

In a 2017 survey of attitudes among global CEOs, professional services group PricewaterhouseCoopers found that Japanese chief executives ranked lowest among their peers in the priority they place on strengthening digital and technology operations.

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