Bookkeeping Jobs: Disappearing or Evolving with Technology?

by Ainoura Oussenbec

March 5, 2019

In Oregon, bookkeeping is a large occupation at present. There are more than 25,000 bookkeeping and accounting clerks, and about 47 percent 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 4,625 and 2,803 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:

  • Enter business expenses and income streams into office software or even into physical ledgers;
  • Receive, process and record receipt of cash, checks, and voucher for clients;
  • Send payments to clients and contact those who owe business money;
  • Receive invoices and verify delivery of products and services; document purchases and orders;
  • Reimburse employees for business expenses;
  • Produce monthly, quarterly, and annual financial reports;
  • 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 $19.99 per hour or $41,583 annually. The starting wages may be relatively low at about $12.74 per hour, but with experience and skills the hourly wage can rise to more than $28 per hour. Regional differences in pay are less dramatic than for many other occupations. The average wages vary from $17.28 per hour in Northwest Oregon to $21.62 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, OED’s employment projections for 2017 to 2027 predict a low growth rate of 3 percent for this occupation. In some regions, such as South Central or Southwestern Oregon, the projected growth rate is close to or below zero.

Nationally, there are about 1,730,500 bookkeeping and accounting clerks, earning about the same on average as 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 1 percent, which means about 25,200 jobs will be lost by 2026.

The significant changes for this once-prolific occupation are the result of profound changes in technology. There are not hundreds, but thousands of programs and applications available today, making bookkeeping processes automated or greatly simplified. 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

Bookkeeping obsolete and disappearing? Yes and no, says Ingrid Edstrom, the owner of Polymath Bookkeeping Services in Ashland, Oregon. In 2016, Ingrid was named one of the 40 top accounting professionals under the age of 40 in the nation, 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 her niche. When employed in a business, the bookkeeper must develop a deep understanding of the entire business and industry. Only then can 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

Ingrid believes that bookkeepers of the future are problem solvers, educators, and consultants. The new definition for bookkeepers from the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers, reflects her business model and her vision of the future for the field: “Bookkeeping professionals are technology savvy, have business acumen as well as industry knowledge, and possess great people and customer service skills. They are management accounting professionals, often specializing in compliance, business strategy, technology setup, execution, and maintenance.”

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 growing slowly or even 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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