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Shelby Austin, head of Deloitte's AI practice, is seen at Deloitte Greenhouse in Toronto on Sept. 13, 2018. She says Omnia, as the AI business is called, would like to scale and 'continue to be the best and likely the biggest AI practice in the country.'

Marta Iwanek/The Globe and Mail

Professional services giant Deloitte LLP plans to hire hundreds of artificial-intelligence professionals across Canada over the next two years, tripling its newly launched AI practice to about 1,000 people – and amping up an already intensifying war for talent in the sector.

Deloitte’s hiring spree follows a decision early this year to bring together disparate groups from across the firm – about 300 of its more than 9,900-person Canadian work force, including data scientists, general programmers and non-technical consulting staff – that were doing AI and data analytics projects for clients. That business was generating “high double-digit growth for a number of years,” said Shelby Austin, head of Deloitte’s AI practice, which it calls Omnia.

“We don’t plan on slowing down," said Ms. Austin, a former lawyer who joined Deloitte after selling her legal services startup to the consulting giant in 2014. “We would like to have that scale and continue to be the best and likely the biggest AI practice in the country.”

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Deloitte is far from the only consulting firm bulking up in the teeming AI sector. Several other consulting giants contacted by The Globe and Mail said they are also boosting their AI efforts here and recruiting armies of employees to help deliver AI solutions to their corporate clients. Across the corporate world, large companies are increasingly experimenting with AI, looking to add the capabilities the transformational technology is expected to bring in the coming years. McKinsey Global Institute recently predicted AI would deliver an additional US$13-trillion in global economic activity by 2030, a boost of 1.2 per cent in annual GDP growth.

That has fuelled an intense war for talent, particularly in Canada, thanks to the global reputations of pioneering research academics such as Geoffrey Hinton and the students they have trained.

Many of those leading scientists have been snapped up by foreign tech giants to lead AI labs in Canada, while a rash of Canadian-based AI software firms have raised hundreds of millions of dollars between them and are looking to hire hundreds of people to expand their businesses.

Consulting firms, meanwhile, have been rapidly adapting to serve their evolving market and to help their clients start transforming their operations and work forces for the coming AI onslaught.

“Everywhere in the world, including Canada, we are hiring,” said Jodie Wallis, managing director of the Canadian AI practice for Accenture, which doesn’t specify how many of the 19,500 people in its global Applied Intelligence practice work in Canada.

McKinsey & Co. partner Vincent Bérubé said a “significant fraction” of the firm’s undisclosed number of employees in Canada “will be working in that space. This is a priority for us … the key here is to build a franchise.”

“We are infusing AI into much of what we do,” said Biren Agnihorti, an artificial-intelligence leader with EY, which has about 240 advisory employees in Canada supporting AI projects for customers such as large banks and mining companies. It plans to increase that number by a double-digit rate next year.

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Meanwhile, Matt MacKenzie, managing director of Boston Consulting Group’s Canadian practice, said his firm, which in June expanded its advanced data analytics and data science practice into Canada, plans to hire 25 to 30 AI professionals “as quickly as we possibly can. … Our only constraint is finding qualified people. We have so much more demand from our clients than we can possibly serve.”

Machine-learning tools have already been used to predict customer behaviour, improve marketing campaigns, make auditors more effective at rooting out fraud, serve customers through online chatbots and help heavy-machinery operators predict when their machines will break down. As clients infuse AI capabilities into their operations, “there will be a period where AI is an additive component to all consulting businesses,” Ms. Wallis said. “Over time, it will become just the way we all do business.’

“Perhaps the strongest indicator of traditional consultancies' belief in AI is their willingness to transform their core capabilities,” said Stephen Piron, chief executive of Dessa, an AI startup in Toronto. “Our specialized talent, skills and product offerings build the fundamental Lego blocks, but consultancies will be essential in putting them all together.”

Ms. Austin said she wasn’t worried about the competition for talent, saying Deloitte offered a “friendly” and family-oriented environment where employees can work regular hours while gaining “world-class leadership development experience.”

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