Surprise finding: Automation driving job prospects for accountants

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New insight from the Genpact Research Institute counters the widely held assertion that automation will soon lead to unemployment within the white collar workforce, especially among finance and accounting professionals as more career paths exist than commonly believed. While new technologies such as robotic process automation, data analytics, and AI do automate roles that previously required manual processing, the valuable analytical skills of financial professionals are already being successfully utilised within the wider economy.

Analyzing data from 1,120 randomly selected people with "accountant" roles in their LinkedIn profiles and employed at large U.S.-based companies, Genpact evaluated the trends in their career trajectories and found that approximately one-third of people whose roles were at risk from automation were able to use their talents in unrelated areas of business. Those that do make the 'jump' have one significant difference, from those that do not: a focus on soft skills.

The hard truth about soft skills

The research shows that accountants who describe themselves by using orientated language that focuses on the practice of accountancy, such as: "accounts", "ledger" and "finance", tended to stay in accountancy roles. Those who use wider skills oriented language to identify themselves; such as "forecasting" "leadership," "analysis" and "planning" – were more likely to find work in other areas. These broader skills are in high demand within the wider business environment, as it goes through a sweeping change.

Automation is being applied to increasing swathes of industry, one of its by-products is a surfeit of structured and unstructured data which could reveal hidden insights and improve performance. "Big data" has the potential to transform business operations across the industry – in marketing, customer service, operations, human resources, as well as other departments. Organizations that make effective use of this information will have an advantage. This is one area where accountants will make a real difference, using their analytical skills, healthy professional skepticism, and ability to provide insight and help improve businesses.

It's not all about crunching numbers, of course – the research shows that many accountants are moving into other non-related roles – 26 percent of accountants have been employed in human resources and administration positions, 20 percent held a role in sales and marketing, and 15 percent in operations, with research and program management also scoring highly. In addition,more traditional positions for accountants in consulting and business analysis stood out. The research findings were clear: the skills and competencies that accountants possess are applicable to many fields, both in and out of finance.

What's next?

While automation might have a negative impact in some ways, Big data will play an increasing role in the talent management process. Today, artificial intelligence technology can thoroughly analyze hundreds of millions of job postings and real-life career transitions of candidates and employees. This can provide insight into career directions that offer the highest potential for workers and also identify the skill gaps to be addressed. The widespread use of such Big data solutions will soon allow enterprises to draw conclusions on career progression, develop effective training and reskilling programs, and create a need for new alternative roles – ones that we are not even aware of today. Technology will eventually lead to some job losses, but the doomsday horizon that has been widely reported appears to be over-stated. Accountants and other white collar professionals have the right skills and competencies that can be applied to different roles within our transforming digital world. Organizations which are able to recognize this; to retain and retrain their employees will be held in good stead for the future. Humans have been adapting to changing situations for thousands of years, it's what we're good at.

This article was co-authored by Gianni Giacomelli who leads the Genpact Research Institute and is the chief innovation officer at Genpact and Prashant Shukla, an assistant vice president at Genpact who drives various initiatives of Genpact Research Institute, including studying of application of cutting-edge technologies like automation and the Internet of things.

The article was first published in Global Banking and Finance on March 13, 2017.