Simultaneous Shortage and Oversupply

Here are two things I wouldn’t ex­pect to be true at the same time:

  • The EA move­ment has a ton of pro­gram­mers, many of them earn­ing to give, and many of them in­ter­ested in mov­ing into some form of di­rect work.

  • Roles for pro­gram­mers in di­rect work tend to sit open for a long time, and peo­ple try­ing to hire pro­gram­mers have a re­ally hard time find­ing peo­ple.

As far as I can tell, though, these re­ally are both true! For ex­am­ple I ran a small email sur­vey (n=40, mostly en­g­ineers) and found 30% of were in­ter­ested in switch­ing to some­thing more valuable, and 40% were po­ten­tially in­ter­ested. And there are a bunch of open­ings:

So, why don’t these open­ings get filled quickly? Some guesses:

  • Lo­ca­tion: the jobs aren’t where the peo­ple are, and nei­ther want to move. For ex­am­ple, I’m in Bos­ton and don’t want to leave or work re­motely.

  • Pay: top tech com­pa­nies can offer very high com­pen­sa­tion, and these or­ga­ni­za­tions don’t pay as much. Though since post­ings don’t in­clude comp it’s pos­si­ble that they ac­tu­ally do pay similarly? But maybe peo­ple don’t ap­ply be­cause they think it would be a large pay cut?

  • Ex­pe­rience: the jobs want some­one who’s been pro­gram­ming for a long time, and peo­ple who could take the jobs haven’t been.

  • Abil­ity: the jobs want ex­tremely tal­ented peo­ple, and most pro­gram­mer EAs don’t pass their bar. But this doesn’t ex­plain why I know a bunch of en­g­ineers at Google, which has a pretty high hiring bar, look­ing to do more di­rectly valuable things.

  • Per­sonal risk aver­sion: as a par­ent of young chil­dren this makes a lot of sense to me! Mov­ing across the coun­try to work at a place that’s not as fi­nan­cially se­cure as, say, Google, would be a real risk. (And one that hit me when I was laid off from Wave.)

  • Work­ing con­di­tions: maybe these jobs aren’t as nice in ways other than pay? More hours, less free food, less abil­ity to work on cool things? But this seems un­likely to me—lots of peo­ple want to work on ML.

  • Cause mis­match: the good jobs are all in AI safety, but the pro­gram­mers look­ing to move are in­ter­ested in global poverty, an­i­mal welfare, or some­thing.

  • Aware­ness: maybe peo­ple are not ac­tively look­ing for jobs and don’t know what’s available? Maybe 80k should have some sort of re­cruiter/​head­hunter that tries to match EAs to spe­cific roles? Maybe they already do this and I don’t know about it?

  • Im­poster syn­drome: peo­ple of­ten don’t have a good model of where they stand, and so might think pos­si­ble jobs aren’t for them. For ex­am­ple, MIRI posts that they’re look­ing for “en­g­ineers with ex­tremely strong pro­gram­ming skills”, and prob­a­bly some of the peo­ple who would do well there don’t re­al­ize that their pro­gram­ming skills are good enough. Even if a job post­ing is framed in a friendly wel­com­ing way, if the or­ga­ni­za­tion has a very strong rep­u­ta­tion that in it­self may make some peo­ple think they couldn’t be good enough.

  • Com­bi­na­tion: maybe there are jobs that do well on many differ­ent met­rics, but not enough of them for any one per­son. For ex­am­ple, maybe there are jobs that pay well (OpenAI?) and jobs in global poverty (GiveDirectly) but if you want both there isn’t some­thing. Or there’s re­mote work (Wave, etc) and there’s work on AI risk, but no op­tions for both.

What’s go­ing on? I’m es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in com­ments from pro­gram­mers who would like to be do­ing di­rect work but are in­stead earn­ing to give, but any spec­u­la­tion is wel­come!

Thanks to Cather­ine Ols­son for dis­cus­sion that led to this post and read­ing a draft. Cross-posted from