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Chief AI officers in demand in South Africa

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 03 Jul 2024
AI specialists and professionals are increasingly needed by local corporates.
AI specialists and professionals are increasingly needed by local corporates.

As South African companies increasingly integrate artificial intelligence (AI) into their operational, strategic and product development processes, recruiters are seeing a steady rise in demand for chief AI officers (CAIOs) to spearhead these AI initiatives.

This is according to recruiter firms, which told ITWeb that across the globe, AI has become a transformative tool that can change people's lives, with businesses reaping significant benefits of the emerging technology.

SA is no exception to this – the need for a wide range of AI skills has grown significantly in recent years, with South African businesses operating in various industries seeking expert leaders who specialise in AI skills to lead these projects.

The role of the CAIO, as a senior executive position, has a broad mandate that encompasses a deep understanding of AI, data science and machine learning, among others, say the recruiters.

According to chiefjobs.com, one of the primary responsibilities of a CAIO is to develop and articulate a clear AI strategy that aligns with the company’s goals.

The rise of ChatGPT and other similar technologies necessitated the creation and evolution of the latest C-suite roles within the corporate hierarchy, with the CAIO being responsible for overseeing the AI strategy, ensuring its alignment with the business’s overall objectives, it says.

Mary Khutlane, group MD of PPC Recruitment and an executive coach, says SA is seeing a slow but steady rise in companies seeking C-suite executives to head up their AI units.

“Hiring for a chief AI officer is increasing significantly in South Africa, although at a slower rate in contrast to other developed markets, as the country is still implementing AI technologies across a variety of business sectors. The need for AI capabilities has grown locally for a few reasons.

“AI has proved to be revolutionary in several sectors, including banking, telecommunications, healthcare and agriculture. It has been demonstrated to enhance operational effectiveness, decision-making procedures and customer satisfaction. Secondly, businesses in SA are reaping rewards from the advantages of AI,” explains Khutlane.

Mary Khutlane, group MD of PPC Recruitment and executive coach.
Mary Khutlane, group MD of PPC Recruitment and executive coach.

Programming, data science, natural language processing, computer vision engineering and data science are a few of the highly-sought-after AI-related roles by local firms. This is due to AI's potential to spur innovation, provide businesses with a competitive-edge in a global market that is changing quickly and advance socio-economic development, she adds.

A new report by Boston Consulting Group − titled AI at work 2024: Friend and foe, which surveyed local company leaders − said companies are starting to move from AI pilot stage, to implementing AI and generative AI initiatives.

“Since SA is in the early implementation stages of AI, there is still a growing need for chief AI officers. Certain aspects of the nation's technological and economic development influence the demand for this role, including factors such as regulatory and ethical considerations. Chief AI officers are needed to ensure AI deployments adhere to laws and ethical guidelines, thereby reducing risk and gaining trust with clients,” adds Khutlane.

As more businesses adopt AI, they will need a CAIO to properly structure, develop and monitor the performance of AI systems, she points out.

Anja Bates, head of data at Pnet, notes AI is starting to be more commonly integrated into the South African business world, and AI specialists and professionals are increasingly in demand by local corporates.

“Over the past five years, there has been a staggering 180% increase in AI vacancies.There has also been a significant increase in South Africans searching and applying for job openings in the AI field. Since June 2021, applications for AI-related jobs increased by 180%. Significant growth in AI job applications is particularly evident since the beginning of 2024.”

The top three in-demand AI roles by corporates, according to the Pnet Job Market Trends report from February 2024, are data scientist, data analyst and data engineer.

“Other occupations where AI skills are in demand are software developers (11%), machine learning specialists (9%) and business analysts (4%),” says Bates.

Research by Dell Technologies found that almost 20% of organisations surveyed globally identified a central team or individual to set an AI strategy. Another report from the company found that the number of ‘head’ of AI jobs tripled over the last five years globally.

Anja Bates, head of data at Pnet.
Anja Bates, head of data at Pnet.

The US Office of Management and Budget recently issued government-wide policy asking all federal agencies to name a chief AI officer, and according to FedScoop, as many as two-thirds of US federal agencies have done so.

Jeff Boudreau, CAIO of Dell Technologies, was appointed to this role in September when only 30 companies had appointed CAIO, he says.

There are now more than 120 CAIOs globally, with more being named by the day, according to Dell.

It is no surprise that businesses and governments around the world are racing to keep pace with AI as it quickly becomes table-stakes technology, it says.

“Organisations are strategising how they can accelerate and co-ordinate their adoption of the latest and greatest technology. They’re considering how AI can be used to drive growth, increase productivity, enhance experiences and accelerate innovation,” comments Boudreau.

“Some are considering new operation models and data centre investments as a result. Hiring for the role of CAIO has risen to prominence as a way for organisations to balance these considerations, evaluate and lead their AI strategies.

“For the public sector, the CAIO can offer structure and guidance to provide better citizen services, as well as promote innovation and competition. For private industries, the CAIO can develop efficiencies within the organisation, bringing greater productivity for team members and a better experience for their end customers.”

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