The current job description of an accounts payable clerk will disappear in possibly as little as 20 years. This may seem bleak, but the reality is that software advances, developments in robotics, AI and machine learning are bringing a new age of automation — one in which machines will be able to outperform humans in various work tasks.

According to McKinsey Global institute’s January 2017 report on the future of automation, nearly half of the activities that people are paid to do in the global economy can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology. Activities most susceptible to this automation are repetitive, non-creative tasks such as data collection and processing. This puts at risk many jobs in customer service, sales, invoicing, account management and other data entry positions, not the least of which includes AP clerks.

However, these projections don’t necessarily mean that the future is hopeless for those holding AP positions. In McKinsey’s words, “People will need to continue working alongside machines to produce the growth in per capita GDP to which countries around the world aspire.”

Skilled employees will work alongside software automation and RPA (robotic process automation) to approve data analyzation, guide software in the right direction and even perform tasks that we may not know exist yet. This will require some new skills-based learning, but it is also an opportunity for AP department employees to step out from behind the curtain, develop their job descriptions and have more interesting and meaningful jobs. Employees will be able to focus on raising their profile, supporting the business with more meaningful work, providing good internal service, and in turn, be more motivated.

Reckon this is wishful thinking? Think again. It’s been done before.

After all, the first “computers” wore skirts.
In the early decades of the 1900s, mathematical and technical calculations were made manually rather than by machine. This work required a large workforce to compute all the information. With the industrial boom brought on by WWII, organizations like NASA began recruiting women for this work, who they called “computers.” It has even been said that “the first computers wore skirts.”

Taraji P. Henson in the film "Hidden Figures," playing the character of Katherine G. Johnson.
Taraji P. Henson in the film "Hidden Figures," playing the character of Katherine G. Johnson. Twentieth Century Fox

Eventually, as the machines we know today as computers began to develop, many of these manual tasks were automated. Rather than discarding the women that had previously done this job, NASA and other organizations simply retrained employees to work alongside these machines and perform less menial tasks. This conscious step allowed the women who had been the quiet backbone of the organization to make themselves and their work known.

One example recently made popular by the book and award-winning film Hidden Figures is that of African-American physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson and her team. Johnson worked as a “computer” on NASA’s early team from 1953-1958, where she analyzed topics such as gust alleviation for aircrafts. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s first orbit around the earth, officials asked Johnson to verify the computer’s numbers and her reputation for accuracy helped establish confidence in the new technology. Johnson herself went on to use these new computers to aid in calculations until her retirement in 1986. Similarly, the value of AP clerks and other accounting professionals will shift as they become valuable as human analysts and strategists, vital in the role of validating a machine’s processes.

These kinds of shifts can be seen throughout history, like in the move away from agriculture and decreases in manufacturing share of employment in the United States, both of which were accompanied by the creation of new types of work not foreseen at the time.

We can expect a similar response to automation in the accounts payable department. As AP software becomes more advanced, clerks and controllers will evolve to work with it, not be replaced by it. The important work of AP clerks will no longer be in the shadows. The job will be transformed from “paper pusher” to vital business asset.