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Rick Jones, the NZ Country Head of accounting industry body CPA Australia, on what automation means for the accounting industry

Business / news
Rick Jones, the NZ Country Head of accounting industry body CPA Australia, on what automation means for the accounting industry
Of Interest podcast
Illustration by Ross Payne

By Gareth Vaughan

We've heard a lot over recent years about jobs and professions where people could be replaced by machines and other forms of technology. Accounting features prominently in this.

In the 2017 television programme What Next?, psychologist Nigel Latta suggested that over 20 years the number of accountants in New Zealand would plummet from 17,669 to just 19, with humans being replaced by robots and algorithms.

Rick Jones, the New Zealand Country Head for accounting industry body CPA Australia, experienced a prompt response to the Latta programme from CPA members.

"It feels like yesterday that that show was on," Jones told interest.co.nz in the latest episode of our Of Interest Podcast

"I remember watching it on a Sunday evening. And then I got to work on Monday morning and had a couple of phone calls, quite early from new members who had just joined CPA Australia as an accounting professional body member. They referenced that programme, and they said, 'look, I'm not sure this is the right path for me' [as] a direct result of the Nigel Latta shows. So it was really interesting that immediately there was a short-term response," said Jones.

Jones fielded additional enquiries that week from people "genuinely worried about accounting as a viable profession," wondering whether they were on the right path, and whether automation would take over their role. The TV programme certainly created a stir in the accounting industry. Some hit back at Latta, including Xero Chief Product Officer Anna Curzon via this Linkedin post.

But in the time since concerns about automation haven't gone away.

"It still gets talked about on a daily basis with employers and with the profession. There are some roles that automation and software have taken over, but what we have seen is a whole lot of new roles have been created. So the demand for accountants and accounting roles has never been greater, but the role of the accountant is evolving and technology is actually an enabler," Jones said.

He speaks about this at length in the podcast, as well as about the challenges of attracting young people to the accounting profession in a dynamic, and changing world.

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22 Comments

Already well under way. Xero has all but wiped out the practice management software for Acc firms, with only the high end needing one.  Make sure you study marketing and communication and it's a great cheap tool to build your own business around.

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That plus CA firms using offshore staff (India) sitting on the other end of Xero. Why import staff?

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As someone who owns a few accounting firms this is actually not the case. The main consequence of this program was the drop off of new entrants to the profession. The biggest issue with the sound bite is that so much an accountant actually does is advocacy, consulting and fixing up stuff ups of clients…ie minimal accounting/processing in all that..the level of demand for this is more than we can handle.

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I did 5 years of Bookkeeping/Accounting at school, then 4 years majoring in it at Uni.  2 years before I graduated I already detested accounting and accounting firms, and after graduating (40 years ago) I went straight into IT, and am glad I did.  The robots are welcome to it.

Accounting has always struck me as heavily dominated by tax considerations, and tax is an arbitrary and ever-changing system of theft.  I could not stand wasting my time keeping up on such a contrived field.

 

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I would recommend being an accountant to anyone considering it, with maybe 2 provisos or you will struggle and not enjoy it:

1) You need to be pretty good academically, and clever enough to be able to listen to an expert from any other field and comprehend what they are telling you.

2) Don't go into it straight from school. Get at least 3 years (the more the better) of real world work experience before going to uni. It doesn't really matter what jobs you do, its more about maturing and learning workplace dynamics and how people at all levels tick.

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I like point 2. Accounting can be learned later, but others things can’t. If I was in secondary school, I wouldn’t bother with it as a subject and in University wouldn’t necessarily bother with it as an undergraduate either. 

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I don't think the wages stack up as well as they did tbh. If you're going to do three years of something else before you even start on a CA pathway then it better pay bloody well. 

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Great advice. Pertains to all walks of life. Good to see commonsense prevails

 

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Advice should be 101 for budding Politicians

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I would argue the opposite. Do 3 years in accounting and then decide what you want to do in the world of business - the exit opportunities will be plentiful.  

If you look at CEO's (on top of obviously CFO's) of NZ's largest companies, a disproportionate amount started their careers as accountants before pivoting into different areas or climbing the corporate ladder. 

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Therein lies part of the problem...they have not worked on the factory floor as one of the regulars.

The other part I see is a very high dropout rate at uni of school leavers v more mature students. Mainly because it's their first experience away from home and they go wild. The mature students have already seen what life will be like if they don't upskill and so party less, study harder and learn more. 

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I see your point, although my point is more around what students do first after uni. Accounting teaches the fundamentals of business and how the world works. 

They can save 3 years of their life by getting that same experience working part time during high school and uni - whether it be doing paper runs, working at Maccas or in retail/hospitality. 

Mature students can also struggle transitioning back to being a full time student - the dedication to late night study, constant tests and exams is more intense than a menial 9-5 job that doesn't require a pursuit of excellence. 

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I didn't know what to do at uni so did a generic BA with mediocre results. In my late 20s I couldn't land the job I wanted to went back and did my Masters degree in a year, first class honours. Those 8 years between my undergrad and my masters were significant and uphold a lot of the comments here - experience in the real world, and the realisation that a dead end job was not for me were great motivators, as were the fact that I couldn't support my family on my low wages. Haven't looked back. That experience of lower end jobs and real life experience are great motivators

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With due respect there is a stereotype about Arts graduates not finding jobs and working at Maccas for a reason, so that's why many students prefer more something more rigorous. 

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In 2037 there will be more than 19 accountants. But there will definitely less accountants providing low value bookkeeping and tax compliance services. There is a growing market for value-added advisory.

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Even in a short career in accounting (6 years) I saw a huge amount of change happen. One of the biggest effects of automation, which isn't always discussed, is how much the IRD's systems are taking away the work of accountants. The time to complete my own tax returns has gone from about 5 hours down to 30 minutes (or less), now that IRD even automatically input your dividend information. I think accounting firms will see fewer younger clients coming through, as people are now growing up in a system that is less daunting and opaque. 

If I was running my own firm I would be worried about how to keep a system of developing new staff. There has been a bit of a windfall gain for firms recently as automation reduced the time involved while the fees stayed constant, but this is now changing as clients are more aware of changes (eg, why am I paying you to do something that I can just do online in ten minutes?). As the bottom layer of work is being automated, this is removing a lot of the work that would typically be the training ground for graduates. Maybe it will go the way of the media industry, which also used to have a wide bottom layer of work which was largely automated away.

You can never underestimate the value of trust though, people still pay a lot for that. 

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I get you could make bank as an accountant that could also code.

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It would certainly be beneficial if our economists had studied accountancy.

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2

I often wonder the same thing, but about radiologists.

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Accounting remains a popular career pathway because it pays well and CA/CPA roles won't be automated. 

After your 3 year bachelors degree + 4 year CA experience, your average CA/CPA will be earning at least 100k as senior accountant, senior finance analyst or finance manager in industry, or as a manager in a CA firm. Those that head offshore will earn 150k. 

Not many 25 year olds, even amongst university graduates, can get that sort of income. 

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Yes but have you ever worked as an accountant for a big firm? It sounds awful, stressful, and definitely not fulfilling. It's like they want to refine  accountants so only the hardest float to the surface and the dross sinks (not a perfect analogy).

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Yes it's stressful but people go into it for the exit opportunities with high pay, which are far more than just accounting if you can 'float to the surface'. 

High pay usually comes after hard work, not dissimilar to medicine and law where the hard work is done upfront at university. 

 

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