Bookkeeping Jobs: Disappearing or Evolving with Technology?

by Tony Wendel

December 8, 2020

In Oregon, bookkeeping is a large occupation at present. There are more than 26,000 bookkeeping and accounting clerks, and about 45% of them work in the Portland Tri-County area (Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties). In addition, an undetermined number of bookkeepers are self-employed, i.e. they work in their own businesses.

Bookkeepers can be found in every industry and sector, from retail shops to construction firms, from nonprofits to government offices, in small businesses and large. The range of employment for this occupation is exceptionally wide. The biggest share of Oregon’s bookkeeping jobs are in wholesale and retail trade, and in professional, scientific, and technical services, with 4,689 and 3,178 jobs, respectively. The category “other industries” includes too many industries to feature here. While a number of occupations can be industry specific, bookkeeping and accounting clerks have opportunities in every part of the economy.
An Internet search offers a classic definition of a bookkeeper – a person whose job is to keep records of the financial affairs of a business. Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks compute, classify, and record numerical data to keep financial records complete. They perform any combination of routine calculating, posting, and verifying duties to obtain primary financial data in maintaining accounting records. Some of the typical responsibilities include:

  • Use bookkeeping software, spreadsheets, and databases
  • Enter (post) financial transactions into the appropriate computer software or possibly physical ledgers
  • Receive and record cash, checks, and vouchers
  • Put costs (debits) and income (credits) into software or ledgers, assigning each to an appropriate account
  • Check for accuracy in figures, postings, and reports
  • Produce financial statements and other reports for supervisors and managers
  • And more
It is common for small businesses to require bookkeepers to process payroll as well as perform other office related duties as needed.

The typical entry level education is a postsecondary non-degree award. Almost all Oregon community colleges provide some training in Accounting Technology, usually for an associate degree. No statewide license is required for this occupation. Many bookkeepers have learned the skills on the job, which is reportedly the best way to discover interest and aptitude for the field and become proficient.

In the past, this occupation was considered in demand, thanks to healthy job opportunities and decent wages. The Oregon average wages for bookkeeping and accounting clerks are $21.31 per hour or $44,386 annually. The starting wages may be relatively low at about $13.62 per hour, but with experience and skills the hourly wage can rise to more than $29 per hour. Regional differences in pay are less dramatic than for many other occupations. The average wages vary from $18.68 per hour in Oregon’s South Coast to $22.83 per hour in the Portland Metro area.

Slow Growth Forecasted for Oregon, Decline for the U.S.

In spite of solid growth in the past, the Oregon Employment Department’s Occupational Employment Projections for 2019 to 2029 predict a small decline of 0.4% for this occupation. Among regions, the East Cascades is expected to have the largest growth (+3.8%) while Southwestern Oregon is projected to have the deepest decline (-3.3%).

Nationally, there are about 1,673,600 bookkeeping and accounting clerks, earning slightly less on average than in Oregon. Usually, national wages are higher than in Oregon for many occupations. The U.S. forecast for bookkeeping and accounting clerks is a decline of 6%, which means about 95,400 jobs will be lost by 2029.

The significant changes for this once-prolific occupation are the result of profound changes in technology. Software innovations, such as cloud computing, have automated many of the tasks performed by bookkeepers. As a result, the same amount of bookkeeping work can be done with fewer employees. Increasingly, bookkeeping duties get outsourced to specialized bookkeeping firms or even to other countries. In addition, it has been a common practice to combine bookkeeping duties with other duties, such as payroll and general office duties. There are fewer full-time bookkeepers employed in businesses today, as the books migrate into the job descriptions of administrative assistants, business analysts, and office managers.

What is going on with this once vital part of business operations? Is technology making bookkeepers obsolete?

Not Disappearing but Evolving – Local Business Leads the Way

Is bookkeeping obsolete and disappearing? Yes and no, says Ingrid Edstrom, the founder and CEO of Polymath, LLC in Ashland, Oregon. Ingrid has been named one of the 40 top accounting professionals under the age of 40 in the nation and as one of the most powerful women in accounting, according to CPA Practice Advisor Magazine. She teaches in accounting conferences and webinars for international audiences and participates in national discussions about the challenges and opportunities for this field. Her business is thriving in the small town of Ashland, while some bookkeepers may struggle even in larger metropolitan areas.

Ingrid believes that bookkeepers will remain a key part of business operations, but their role must change and expand. Finances are still and will always be fundamental to any business. While business owners are typically entrepreneurs by nature, many of them are not skilled or that interested in the financial side of their business. Regardless of where the books are done, in-house or out of the country, and which software is used, the need to understand and control finances is crucial for every business and organization.

Here is how Ingrid’s business provides the next generation of bookkeeping services for her customers.
  • Know the books: Ingrid has years of direct experience in bookkeeping and is among those few who actually enjoy solving bookkeeping puzzles for breakfast. This is one field with no substitute for direct work experience and aptitude. Formal training is available at local colleges but the programs and instructors often times may be way behind the curve. Somebody with a passion for bookkeeping, who is able to keep up with the profound changes in the industry, is an incredible help to those business owners who just want to focus on daily operations.
  • Become an expert in many software applications: Ingrid has developed an extensive knowledge of numerous software applications related to bookkeeping. She is certified in advanced levels of several popular software suites. Any brave novice trying to explore the current bookkeeping software offerings will surely be overwhelmed by choices and loud sales claims. Ingrid helps customers to navigate the complex world of bookkeeping programs and select the most suitable solutions for their needs.
  • Become an educator and consultant: Ingrid works more as a consultant and educator, which means her communications and people skills are put to use daily. If the world used to see bookkeepers as silent and introverted persons in the back room, this is certainly not Ms. Edstrom. She is engaged in daily communications with her clients, offering customized insights for each business and each unique situation.
  • Become an industry expert, develop specialization: Ingrid believes that it is no longer possible to do everything for everybody. Each bookkeeping expert will need to find his/her niche. When employed in a business, the bookkeeper must develop a deep understanding of the entire business and industry. Only then can he/she become a part of the strategic conversations with the business owners and management. As a self-employed person, the bookkeeper needs to understand local economic conditions, and develop expert knowledge about one or two local industries.
While this new bookkeeper profile may appear to overlap with the expertise of Certified Public Accountants (CPA), differences still remain. CPAs can offer analysis of past financial performance and assist with projections, advice on taxes, financial and tax planning, auditing, succession planning, and other areas. Both accounting professionals can be needed in a business in different scenarios and at different stages.

Bookkeeping in the Future

In spite of the slowing or declining trends in Oregon and the nation, those with a passion for numbers and books will be able to find good employment prospects. A certain level of bookkeeping skills may be included in other job descriptions, and is particularly crucial for managers and business owners.

No amount of technology or outsourcing will replace the need for financial acumen among those who actually make financial decisions and run businesses. The role of the ubiquitous bookkeeping software is to organize and process the data, but the decision making based on all that data will ultimately remain with skilled and shrewd humans.

The bookkeeping occupation may be slowly declining, but the bookkeeping skills and knowledge in general will remain relevant for businesses and in demand for the foreseeable future.

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