Future book-keepers need a selection of skills;
passing your exams is just the beginning. Lesley Meall talks
to experienced professionals about the expertise they -
and their clients - find most useful.
When you decide to become a book-keeper you
are joining the oldest
profession in the world. The earliest known
records of commerce are tax accounting records created by scribes (the
Sumerian equivalent of today's accountant) between 3,000 and 3,500 BC.
Then, financial information was recorded on clay: today, most financial information
is recorded on computer, making IT skills increasingly important to
Book-keepers who are familiar with specialist software can achieve significantly
more than those who stick to manual methods. "Accounting software
does the same job only much faster and cleaner," says self-employed
Sheila Cooksey. "The old-fashioned way works fine, but it's not as
efficient and takes more brain power." Since converting from
Sheila has found that she can service five times as many clients. "To raise
an invoice, I used to have to calculate and type it up, alter the ledger,
then recalculate the profit and loss," she
recalls. "Now, I only make one input and the rest is done for me."
Knowledge of popular software and systems
is also important to those employing book-keepers. "The importance
of keeping up-to-date, particularly on the systems side, can not be overestimated," says
Steve Carter, managing director of Accountemps. This is
confirmed by Peter George, sales director at Payroll Elite. "Those with experience
of payroll bureau systems such as CMG and PS2000 are in demand," he says: "We certainly
get more jobs in this area."
Even so, computer skills alone are no substitute
for practical business experience.
"Most of my time is spent working
on the systems side," says Nigel Gaynor,
a fellow of the TAB and director of
Arncliffe Business Services, a Sage reseller.
But he finds his business background
is what inspires confidence in
clients. "It's true - there's no substitute
for practical experience," says Gaynor,
"but it's not the easiest thing to acquire." He suggests
students seek out any workplace experience that will help them get a real business perspective on the theory and terminology
they've learned. "The sort of situation you find in
exam questions is frequently more complicated
than those you come across in
a typical SME," says Gaynor. But "even straightforward
data entry work can help you acquire
valuable business experience,"
Running a business centre offering book-keeping
and payroll services, Margaret Baldwin has found the combination of business and computer skills
invaluable. "I have seen the state accounts
can get into when an inexperienced person sets up a computerised accounting system,"she says.
"Most of my new clients now are those that have tried to do this themselves
or with the help of an unqualified book-keeper then found that they cannot
cope." This experience is echoed by Nigel Gaynor. "I spend a lot of time
helping people correct their mistakes," he says.
"There is a very real need for professionally
qualified book-keepers to take over this side of the business," says Baldwin.
This is so clients can concentrate on what they do best. "My client
base has included some 30 businesses over the years in a wide variety of different occupations,"
she says, "and it has given me a good insight into
the problems faced by small businesses". Many are very good at offering
their products or services but very poor at book-keeping and administration.
Order from chaos
"I have to restore order from the chaos that has been generated,"
but she relishes the task. "I find the role of book-keeper immensely rewarding and very
varied," she says, adding: "I prefer to be involved with small
businesses as part
of their team and to see those businesses
Providing management accounts for her
clients means that Baldwin
also helps them to improve their business controls and planning. "I
know that this accurate and up-to-date information about their business is helping them plan for the future and spot any possible
problems before they become serious."
"Book-keepers are often the cinderellas of
industry," says J. Malcolm Dean, chief executive of the LAB and IFA. But that doesn't
have to be the case. As these book-keepers have found, their skills are valuable
and clients hold them in high esteem. One of Margaret Baldwin's clients was so
impressed with the service she provided that he nominated her for the
Book-keeper of the Year Award in 2001 - and she won it.