Never before have the fundamental assumptions about the U.S. job market looked so precarious. Automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics, among other technologies, are changing the skills and the skill level required of employees in many industries, including retail, transportation, and manufacturing.
The accounting profession is experiencing similar changes, and the pace and pressure of that change is exploding into a major disruption. Robotics is expected to eliminate 40 percent of basic accounting work by 2020. We’re in the early stages of the big data and artificial intelligence revolution in accounting, which already is being wholeheartedly embraced at the larger firms. Blockchain, which may develop as the most significant disruptor of all, is only in its infancy. As blockchain gains traction, it promises to provide a viable replacement for the traditional third-party verifier of transactions, radically altering both the concept of audit and the role of auditors in ways that are only beginning to emerge.
These new technologies create a labor conundrum for the accounting industry. As routine work becomes commoditized, the traditional entry-level jobs are being eliminated. At the same time, there is an intense demand for accountants with more specialized and higher-level skills. But where are these accountants with knowledge of data analytics, cybertechnologies, critical thinking and great client skills going to come from? It’s hard to grow them organically with fewer entry-level jobs, and these higher-level skills are not necessarily being taught in college accounting programs.
The demand for data analysts and experts in the space where technology meets accounting is through the roof. Also, what we used to call “soft skills” are now being taken very seriously. Critical thinking, creativity, communications skills and the ability to be part of a team are skills that have become as integral to the job as debits and credits. One clear challenge for the academic community is to provide curricula that better mirror the reality in the industry – for new hires must embrace the evolving technology and also quickly become fluent in the new level of consultative services the technology will yield.
There’s another likely twist in our era of change: The specialization that technology brings is destined to change the CPA Exam. Given the demand of deeper knowledge in such areas as technology, data analytics and cyber, candidates may soon choose their exam based on how they want to specialize in the field. And that means they will specialize earlier in their education, posing yet another challenge for the academic community.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the human capital crunch in accounting, which has brought a profound culture shift in the profession. There was a time when staff at all levels were expected to be physically in the office nights and weekends during the “busy season.” Increasingly, a combination of enabling technology and employee expectations has turned those old ways on their ear, giving way to greater flexibility for employees – so long as they produce. Firms also are learning that Millennials are not a generation that wants to be seen and not heard. Indeed, they want to be consulted and see their ideas put into place.
The new generation of CPAs will see changes that we can’t imagine. The industry’s business model will evolve along with the skill sets, but the most important feature of the profession must stay constant: the trust that the public places in CPAs, which recently ranked first in the country, ahead of doctors. It’s up to us to prepare the next generation not only for the dazzling new technologies, but also in the core values that keep the profession on top.