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Comment: The jobs market is changing – can accountants ride above the digital wave?

By the AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians)

Technology is continuing its all-encompassing and relentless drive forward, aiming to prove that there are few human-powered roles that it cannot do.

Driverless cars are just one example. They are set to be tested on the UK’s roads and motorways in just two years from now; and the Government is said to be in full support of these trials – not least through the provision of around £100 million in grants to back autonomous driving projects.

Successful trials of driverless vehicles could have a major impact on British jobs. Currently some 300,000 HGV drivers are licenced in the UK; a further 300,000 are registered as taxi drivers, and this doesn’t take into account all UK professional drivers by any means.

In addition, there’s already concern from some quarters that Brexit could have a negative impact on the UK economy and therefore, potentially, on jobs. New technology could unwittingly create even more holes in the employment market – and let’s face it, the impact of the role that technology plays in society isn’t about to cool down.

Recent reports claim that the country’s youngest generation is so empowered by tech that they are being taught ‘netiquette’ – the correct, or socially acceptable, ways of going online (for example, not at the dinner table) – as part of their education. But as yet this is having little impact, with tech addiction – said to have much the same effect on the brain’s frontal cortex as cocaine – turning children into screen junkies who cannot fight the urge of the computer, phone or iPad.   

Accountancy – is the tech revolution a help or hindrance to jobs?

So what of accountancy, said to be the second highest job at risk of succumbing to technological developments according to a 2016 PwC report.

According to the Financial Times, technology is already transforming hiring practices amongst the Big Four professional services firms. Much of the administrative work previously aimed at entry-level graduates and apprentices is being eroded.

Harry Gaskell, EY’s chief innovation officer for the UK and Ireland, recently defended his firm’s decision to use apps and robots to do 30% of employee workload.

“A lot of graduates are in the office until midnight adding information into spread sheets,” he said. “That knowledge is now in machines, so we can free up graduates to do more entrepreneurial projects.”

Jesse Norton, editorial director at communications consultants Flibl, agreed that accountants are already feeling the impact of the technology revolution, but was more optimistic in terms of the impact job volumes.

“Automation isn’t making accountants redundant,” he said, “but instead it’s shifting the needs of clients and improving the efficiency of accountancy firms.”

There’s hope for humans – for now

As yet, the balance of power still lies with humans. A new survey by Robert Walters showed that accountancy vacancies – predominantly, ironically, vacancies for accountants within tech, e-commerce, digital and media businesses – rocketed by 41% in the first quarter of 2017. The suggestion made for the increase was that accounting specialists can “play a strategic role, helping to ensure long-term stable growth with firms seeking to adapt” in the light of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

So it appears, at least in the short term, that demand for accountancy is alive and well – across businesses from different industries, sectors, and sizes.

Brian Palmer, tax policy expert for AAT, described the continued rise of robots and machine intelligence as “an inevitability”, but saw this as a positive step for those in the industry.

He added: “We are already significantly into a period of major change that has been brought about by cloud-based accounting and the growth in memory capacities of computers. But this works to the benefit of accounting technicians, who have shown themselves to be agile in their approach and are used to embracing changes in technology.”

Accountants to provide ‘value-add’ services

So what do those out there, grafting in accountancy at the moment think? We posed questions to hundreds of licenced members at this year’s AAT Annual Conference to get a view from current accountants and bookkeepers as to the likely impact technology will play.

The results showed that:

  • 10% say they are ‘very concerned’ about robots taking over accounting jobs; but far more (32%) put their concern level at ‘slightly’
  • 46% said that they were not very concerned, suggesting automation should be viewed as an opportunity, not a threat
  • 48% of licenced AAT members believe that the technology revolution is already having a major impact on the nature of accounting roles
  • Members thought that invoice processing, administering payroll and bookkeeping will be the main elements of accounting that would become automated within the next decade, but that auditing financial information, tax planning and advising senior management will not.

The sense from those currently working in the profession, therefore, is that accountants can provide value-add services in greater lengths, with automation taking the weight of some of the more menial tasks.

Henry Cooper, who runs his own small business BirchCooper Accounting, said that he couldn’t see certain elements of accountancy ever becoming fully automated, but that it was important for those in the industry to use technology, especially with the forthcoming introduction of Making Tax Digital.

“There’s nothing more frustrating than rooting around for a P60 that the client has lost when HMRC already holds this information,” he said. “Ultimately, Making Tax Digital will be a good thing in the long-term as it will cut out these frustrations and help firms embrace technology.”

Ask the experts

A number of experts speaking at AAT’s Annual Conference believed that, while automation might take some base-level jobs, this could in fact be beneficial for both current and future accountants, though it would require a change of focus and direction.

Jesse Norton, who spoke at the Conference on the theme of technology revolutionising finance, saw this as a positive move for the industry.

“Many of the transactional tasks accountants have traditionally been responsible for can now be automated,” he said. “But clients look for more than just a calculator to tell them how and what they should pay.

“Tax laws aren’t written in computer code, and robots still struggle with the ambiguities of human language. It could be a long time yet before computers are able to offer better advice than a trained finance professional.”

Henry Cooper added: “For any business to succeed, you have to have adaptability. Indeed, we’ve had clients choose our firm because we have been happy to embrace new technology. If the tools are there to be used, then why not use them?”

Brian Palmer agreed. He said: “Accountants will always fulfil a vital and necessary role in the lives of their clients,” he said. “But in order to do so, accountants will need to focus on the provision of value-added services. This will ensure that they are, in effect, humanising the results that computers might produce in real time and advising clients on how to get the best for their business.

“Automation should be a great opportunity for accountants not least because it frees them from much of the dull and monotonous administrative and compliance work that is of little value to anyone. This in turn will enable accountants more time to advise on how client finances should be set up to ensure business success for the future.”

 

By the AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians)

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