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Automation: what does it mean for finance jobs and skills?

Automation of certain financial functions such as creating cash flow forecasts, creating data on payables and receivables, or invoicing and payment communications, is fast becoming reality. This automation, together with voice-activation and AI technologies, is driving the launch of digital assistants – Gia by Emagia is a ground-breaking example of a digital assistant that will be able to operate within the corporate treasury space. This may raise some concerns among financial professionals: will their roles still be done by humans in future? Gia's producers are quick to declare that the aim of their digital assistant is “to free up staff to be able to focus on more strategic important work”.

Automation won't eliminate financial roles

No doubt there is truth in this. Just as washing machines and dishwashers haven't eliminated the need for humans to do housework, the automation of certain financial work won't eliminate the need for a human brain to oversee, check, pick up the pieces if things go wrong or take over when specialist work is needed.

If anything, the idea of freeing employees to concentrate on strategic work is something of a backhanded promise. Automation will lead to profound workplace change and in finance, some roles will go completely. Figures produced by Gartner estimate that almost a quarter of jobs will be automated in the next seven years. The employees that remain will certainly get the 'strategic' work but they'll also have to take on the monitoring, verification and trouble-shooting of automated processes too. The analogy of domestic appliances freeing women from household chores 60 years ago seems apt. More women went out to work (obviously domestic appliances were not the only factor in this societal trend), but the women then found they still had to do the majority of domestic tasks when they got back from their 9-5 job. Change happened but much remained the same. The fate of corporate treasury professionals could be similar.

What finance skills will be in-demand?

In any case, automation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will bring a major workplace shift and significant job displacement. An initiative launched this week at the World Economic Forum (WEF) aims to encourage a million people globally to retrain and improve their IT skillsets through the SkillSET portal, developed by PwC. The portal has a number of global tech companies backing it and sharing elements of their individual training libraries on the platform. According to PwC's CEO survey, 22 per cent of CEOs are extremely concerned about the availability of key digital skills in the workforce.

Research by Robert Half UK also found that CFOs are finding it difficult to find candidates with the right skills when recruiting for financial positions. The 2018 Salary Guide found that 39 per cent of CFOs found it 'very challenging' and 53 per cent found it 'somewhat challenging' to find the right skilled candidates. The report listed some of the most desired skills and qualifications for financial positions:

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