According to a recent report by PwC, the first wave of automation arriving in the next two to three years will hit financial and professional services hardest, when compared to other sectors. According to the analysis of more than 200,000 jobs across 26 counties, between six and eight per cent of financial services jobs will disappear during the first wave of automation in the early 2020s. Across the board, this figure stood at just two to three per cent.

Against this backdrop, finance professionals must capitalise on innately human attributes such as creativity and emotional intelligence in order to safeguard their careers.  

Looking at accountancy specifically, the FT recently reported that increasing automation and artificial intelligence are behind the reducing need for armies of graduates who can do the low-level paperwork usually required of them. In short, technology is replacing their jobs. Furthermore, a top executive at Big Four accountancy firm, EY, recently went on record to say that graduate recruitment at auditors and accountants could fall by as much as 50 per cent by 2020 due to the impact of artificial intelligence.

Similarly, according to Accenture analysis, transactional tasks are already moving to integrated business services solutions that use robotics, which will automate or eliminate up to 40 per cent of transaction accounting work by 2020. This shift means that finance staff will spend more than 75 per cent of their time, up from 25 per cent today, on decision support, predictive analytics, and performance management. It is here where the value of soft skills comes into play.

The role of the accountant isn’t disappearing, merely metamorphosing. Today’s professionals must capitalise on the increase in data available to adopt a more advisory role, proactively offering value-added services based on live information, such as strategy and planning and business partnering to drive business performance.

Despite some controversy surrounding the rise of RPA and AI, a recent poll of Chartered Institute of Accounting Professionals (CIMA) members found that the vast majority were embracing this change, with a significant 83 per cent in support of automation. When asked about the effect of such innovation on businesses, management accountants were most likely to state that the outcome would be more efficient companies as a result of better automation and data analysis (62 per cent), followed by a general up-skilling of the workforce due to the need for more advanced computer skills (47 per cent).

Similarly, ACCA research shows that the next generation of accountants are aware of, and ready for, PwC’s forecasts. According to its Generation Next survey of 18,000 finance professionals under the age of 36, more than half (57 per cent) believe that technology will replace entry level roles in the profession, and the majority (84 per cent) welcome this, saying that technology will enable them to focus on higher value-added activity.

What’s more, while the practice of culling graduate roles may aid short-term efficiency, it will almost certainly have a disastrous impact on future talent pipelines by creating significant shortages at newly-qualified and mid-level in the next three to five years. This will inevitably add to the rarity and value of innately ‘human’ skills moving forwards.

As accountancy moves from a purely technical role to a more consultative role, professionals can free up time to analyse data, spot trends and add real value to their organisation. It’s no secret that some elements of traditional accounting are monotonous, tedious and time intensive – it seems that the days of the number cruncher are strictly limited. Contrary to long-held stereotypes, today’s in-house finance professionals must have the ability, and gravitas, to engage with others both inside and outside of the organisation.

The aforementioned PwC research found that as many as 30 per cent of jobs across the economy could be lost to automation by 2030. However, while finance and accountancy may be the sectors most susceptible to job losses amid the rise of automation, this also means that they potentially have the most to gain. Yes, AI can boost efficiency exponentially, but news that Walmart’s recently introduced customer service robots are being ignored by customers is indicative of a continuing, innate, desire for human interaction. As such, professionals who can firmly differentiate their skill-sets from the capabilities of machines will quickly find their value increasing.