Automation Threatens to Put Accountants Out of Work

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According to research conducted by Oxford University and Deloitte, two of the ten jobs most at risk of being totally automated in the next two decades are “financial accounts manager” and “bookkeeper.”

In light of this unsettling news, graduate jobs forum WikiJob issued a survey asking graduates interested in accounting careers how they felt about the threat. Are they concerned? Is this issue making them consider alternative career paths where automation is a less significant threat?

Machines Make Accountants Nervous

WikiJob found that three in four graduates (74 percent) looking to pursue a career in accounting are concerned that automation could make their role redundant within two decades. More than 50 percent of surveyed graduates said they believe bookkeeping is the area of accounting most at risk of being replaced in the medium or long term by machines.

“This survey demonstrates the nervousness that many graduates are feeling when they look at possible careers in accountancy [in the longer term],” says James Rice, head of digital marketing at WikiJob. “It probably is true to say that areas like bookkeeping and tax will struggle to attract higher-caliber graduates as time goes on because the job security will look increasingly precarious. The profession is in good health currently, but it must do all it can to persuade new recruits that their roles are ones that can’t easily be automated in the future. Otherwise, accounting could find itself facing a recruitment crisis in years to come.”

In a surprising turn of events, fewer than half of the graduates surveyed by WikiJob said accounting was a good career choice. (Remember, WikiJob specifically surveyed graduates who indicated they were interesting in accounting careers.) Almost 40 percent said that they were unsure about the prospects for an accounting career, and two-thirds of respondents were considering careers in alternative industries.

Attract Candidates by Downplaying the ‘Bean Counter’ Image

Many graduates who are looking at careers in accounting realize that soft skills are increasingly important today. The survey suggests more graduates are interested in the consultative side of accounting, where there is much more human interaction and a high level of strategic planning, making the positions very difficult to automate.

To assuage the nerves of candidates and assure new recruits about their long-term job security, the accounting industry needs to make a strong case for those accounting roles for which there will be long-term demand and which will be very difficult to replace with automation.

“Some of those roles may even be created as a consequence of new technology,” says Rice. “Accounting firms need to show how soft skills, networking, management prowess, and creative thinking will be fundamental to the future accountant – and say how that’s a good thing, as many of the more boring tasks will be taken away from workers, which should make their tasks more interesting.”

Although many training programs and educational courses have yet to change their approaches to accounting, those adjustments may be coming soon.

“In a way, it might help accounting as it shifts away from the ‘bean counter’ stereotype toward an image based more on consulting, professional relationships, financial insight, and creative solutions to business problems,” says Rice. “I think training programs will start to focus more on areas where people can provide value that machines can’t deliver.”

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Samantha LoCoco earned her BA in English and world literatures from Marymount Manhattan College. She works as a research assistant for a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and is currently an MFA candidate for fiction at The New School in Manhattan.