PYMNTS MonitorEdge May 2024

AI Whisperers: Bright Spots in a Shifting Job Landscape

AI, artificial intelligence, prompt engineer, jobs

As the U.S. job market shows signs of gradual cooling, one group is experiencing an unexpected surge in demand: artificial intelligence (AI) prompt engineers.

These specialists, who craft phrases to elicit specific responses from AI, are commanding six-figure salaries and sparking fierce competition among employers. Observers say they have seen a ten-fold rise in the number of prompt engineer job listings over the last year. Their rise highlights the dynamic nature of today’s employment landscape, where emerging technologies create new opportunities even as traditional sectors adjust.

Recent labor market data paints a nuanced picture. While June’s payroll gains exceeded expectations, other indicators suggest a gradual cooling. The unemployment rate ticked up to 4.1% in June from 4% in May, and revisions lowered April and May’s payroll estimates by a combined 111,000. The 3-month payroll average has slowed to 177,000, the lowest since January 2021.

Against this backdrop, the demand for AI specialists is a notable bright spot.

The Prompt Engineer’s Toolkit

Prompt engineers have emerged as critical players in the AI field, combining technical expertise with creative flair to coax the best performance from large language models (LLMs).

“Good prompt engineers know four things extremely well,”Andreas Welsch, founder and chief AI strategist at Intelligence Briefing, told PYMNTS. “Which model to use for the task, what the transactional cost of their AI use case is, which prompting technique to use for a given task, and what sequence of words to use in order to elicit specific, safe output with the least amount of tokens.”

This unique skill set goes beyond mere technical knowledge. Hardik Chawla, a senior product manager at Amazon working on LLM-based chatbots, told PYMNTS that prompt engineers need “a deep understanding of how LLMs work and their capabilities; excellent writing skills to craft clear, concise and effective prompts; domain expertise in the specific field the AI is being applied to; and the ability to collaborate with diverse teams.”

The path to becoming a prompt engineer isn’t straightforward. With no standardized training route, aspiring professionals often cobble together their education through hands-on experience, online communities and self-study.

“Most of this training happens via online communities, vendor documentation and reviewing research papers,” Welsch noted. Chawla added that participating in AI hackathons, personal projects and studying natural language processing fundamentals are crucial.

The Gold Rush: Demand and Compensation

The demand for prompt engineers has sparked a modern-day gold rush in the tech industry. According to Welsch, salaries potentially reach up to $335,000 in high-cost areas like the San Francisco Bay Area.

This surge in demand isn’t just about the novelty of the role. Prompt engineers are becoming indispensable as businesses across various sectors move to incorporate AI into their operations.

“There’s a rapid adoption of AI across industries, creating a need for specialists who can effectively leverage LLMs,” Chawla said. “There’s also a shortage of professionals with the right mix of technical knowledge and creative skills.”

Moreover, the impact of a skilled prompt engineer can be substantial. Well-crafted prompts can significantly improve AI performance and user experience, potentially saving companies millions in operational costs and preventing PR disasters.

As Welsch pointed out, “good prompt engineers know how to put safeguards in place to guide and evaluate LLMs. This is critical in enterprise environments and customer-facing scenarios where any missteps by the underlying LLM can result in a PR debacle.”

As with any emerging field, the long-term outlook for prompt engineers remains fluid. Michael Hasse, a cybersecurity and technology consultant, told PYMNTS: “This is a challenging question because it’s such a fast-moving target. By and large, businesses hiring for positions with that skillset don’t really care about the ability to engineer a prompt per se; they care about the quality of the output from that prompt.”

Hasse noted that LLM design teams are already working to make their products more user-friendly, potentially reshaping the role of prompt engineers.

“They are responding by removing that hurdle to effective interaction by adding additional layers to ‘expand’ whatever the user enters,” he explained.

This rapid evolution could shift the focus from technical prompt engineering to a broader understanding of AI applications and desired outcomes.

“We are already at a point where simply having a good working knowledge of the desired output content is more important than any particular understanding of the mechanics of LLM functionality,” Hasse said. However, he acknowledged that such understanding “certainly still doesn’t hurt.”

As the job market continues to evolve, the surge in AI prompt engineering serves as a reminder of the opportunities that emerge with technological advancements. In this dynamic terrain, the ability to navigate the language of machines may be one of the most valuable skills of our time. As AI technology progresses, the nature of this role may transform, underscoring the importance of adaptability in the fast-paced world of tech careers.