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Bookkeeper – As a Career & its reality.

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Bookkeepers are responsible for recording the numbers that reflect the organization's assets and liabilities, profits and losses and general economic health. You may think of a bookkeeper as someone wearing a green eye shade and writing in a huge ledger book. But technology has changed the job tremendously. Today a bookkeeper's most important tool is usually a computer.

Bookkeepers (they're sometimes called accounting or auditing clerks) record and verify debits (money a company has paid out) and credits (money a company has earned), compare current and past balance sheets, summarize details of separate ledgers, prepare financial reports for managers and prepare different types of tax filings. They pay close attention to every financial transaction and post figures under the correct columns or appropriate headings, using a computer spreadsheet program or a ledger book (as some mom-and-pop businesses still do).

Computers have speed up many of the more tedious and time-consuming tasks that used to be done manually. They can generate payroll statements as well as paychecks, tally monthly expenses and income to generate pretax information and churn out invoices, accounts receivable and payable and their age.



Despite computers, one thing hasn't changed since the Egyptian traders started keeping books in 3000 B.C.; accuracy is a must. If numbers aren't entered correctly into a calculator or a spreadsheet program, the computations won't be correct. To make it in this field, you must be good with details and have the patience to check and double-check your work.

Bookkeepers can be found in almost every type of business. One in three bookkeepers works for a wholesale concern or retail store. One in four works for organizations that provide business, health and educational and social services. About 25 percent of bookkeepers work on a part-time basis.

In large companies, bookkeepers may work in payroll, billing (accounts payable), receipts (accounts receivable) or another specialized area. In a smaller firm, you may be expected to perform office tasks, from answering phones to typing and mailing statements and collections of receivables, in addition to bookkeeping responsibilities.

Familiarity with computers and spreadsheet programs is a definite plus in looking for a first job, but many employers are willing to train a high school graduate who wants to learn the necessary skills and who shows an aptitude for math and number crunching.

If you're the type of person who finds satisfaction in balancing your checkbook and tracking your own income and expenses, bookkeeping may be just the job for you.

What You Need to Know
  • Commonly used bookkeeping and business words

  • Basic banking, billing and posting procedures
Necessary Skills

  • Ability to do basic calculations

  • Ability to use computers and learn new software pro-grams

  • Familiarity with spreadsheet and database software a plus

  • Knowledge of the keyboard, particularly the numerical pad

  • Ability to operate office equipment-electronic or manually operated calculator, typewriter, copy and facsimile (fax) machines
Do You Have What It Takes?
  • Legible handwriting

  • Strong powers of concentration and ability to be very detail-oriented

  • Patience to sit for long hours at a ledger or computer terminal while you enter numbers

  • Ability to perform repetitive tasks without getting too bored or frustrated

  • Ability to get along with a variety of employees and customers, particularly in payroll, personnel and collections
Physical Requirements
  • Good eyesight

  • Strong back (to tolerate sitting for long periods)
Education

A high school diploma is required. Employers may give preference to those who have taken accounting, business math or office skills courses. On-the-job training is very common.

Job Outlook

Licenses Required
  • None.
A few states require bookkeepers who work on tax returns to be licensed.

The Ground Floor

Job openings will grow: more slowly than average

Automation makes it possible for fewer people to handle bookkeeping tasks. But as the economy grows, there will be more financial transactions and a greater need for bookkeeping services. Most new jobs will be created in small, rapidly growing organizations. Part-time and temporary opportunities are expected to increase as more companies try to reduce their expenses by hiring bookkeepers during their busy times.

On-the-Job Responsibilities

Entry-level jobs: general bookkeeper (at a small firm); bookkeeping, accounting or auditing clerk

Depending on your function, your title might be accounts receivable clerk, accounts payable clerk, invoicing systems operator, ledger clerk, inventory clerk, payroll clerk or billing clerk.

Beginners
  • Verify and record routine transactions ("posting")

  • Make "journal entries" in ledgers

  • Handle preliminary, periodic balancing of the books

  • Execute procedures specific to your area of specialization

  • Gather financial data for the accounting department

  • Write checks

  • Keep files in order

  • Compute, type and mail bills and checks, make bank deposits

  • Perform general office tasks on an as-needed basis
Experienced Bookkeepers
  • Prepare trial balance, general ledger, sales ledger and aging of accounts receivable and payable

  • Reconcile the general ledger (find and correct errors), bank statements, etc.

  • Close out the books (make sure everything balances) at the end of a month or cycle

  • Prepare financial statements

  • Supervise other bookkeepers
A 35- to 40-hour workweek is typical. Overtime may be required during busy seasons-the end of the fiscal year or quarterly or annual tax preparation time.

Bookkeepers receive the same vacation benefits as other comparable employees at the company but are least likely to take days off during high-volume periods, such as the end of the fiscal year and tax preparation time, which can fall at any time throughout the year. Paid sick and personal days and major holidays are also given.
  • Health insurance (some employers)

  • Payment for courses related to skill improvement (some companies)

  • Accounting firms

  • Retailers and wholesalers

  • Manufacturing firms

  • Hospitals and health service companies

  • Financial service companies (banks, insurance companies, brokerages)

  • Schools and universities (public and private)

  • Businesses of all kinds, large and small

  • Social service organizations

  • Local, state and government agencies
On-the-job Hazards
  • Back and shoulder strain

  • Stress-related symptoms (especially headaches)

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (a wrist fatigue injury caused by repetitive keyboard motions)

  • Eyestrain and headaches
Places You'll Go Surroundings

Beginners and experienced bookkeepers: little or no potential for travel

The offices bookkeepers work in vary from tastefully designed, well-lighted environments to glass cubicles above a factory floor to windowless spaces. In a large corporation, you might have a small, private office or work at a desk in an open area with other office support personnel.

Dollars and Cents

Starting salary: $13,600 to $16,900

More experienced: $18,500 to $30,000

Part-time bookkeepers can expect to earn from $7 to $10 per hour. Pay scales tend to be higher in profit-making firms.

Moving Up

A high turnover rate allows good opportunities for pro-motion, particularly within larger companies. You can also move up by specializing in an area such as payroll, inventory or billing. Additional course work in accounting and financial software can make a big difference in how far you go. If you show that you're a quick study or take the initiative to learn additional office skills, you will have more opportunities within a company, particularly a small one.

Where the Jobs Are

Bookkeeping positions can be found virtually everywhere, but the majority of jobs are concentrated in large metropolitan areas where businesses are located.

Training

Most training is on-the-job because each business has its own way of setting up its financial records. Still, you may have an advantage over other applicants if you have taken high school courses in business math, clerical business practices, typing and keyboard skills and business machine operation. You can also gain skills by attending a postsecondary business institute, a two-year community college or a continuing education program offered by a high school.

The Male/Female Equation

Bookkeeping is dominated by women, but with computers playing an increasingly important role, men may be more attracted to this field.

Making Your Decision: What to Consider

The Bad News
  • Having to bug people for payment (in collectibles)

  • Repetitive tasks

  • Being the bearer of bad news to internal management

  • Continual pressure to do accurate work
The Good News
  • Jobs exist everywhere

  • "Nine-to-five" hours

  • Part-time and temporary opportunities available

  • Little training needed
Melissa Stegman, 32, Assistant bookkeeper, Thermol Fusion, Inc., Hayward, California Years in the field: ten

How did your career begin?

I had been working as a receptionist at Arthur Young, one of the "Big Eight" accounting firms, for a year when a bookkeeping position opened up. They offered it to me along with on-the-job training.

What did you do on that job?

I worked in accounts receivable doing expense and time reports. I matched up invoices and checks, which is very basic reconciling work. I was there for six years and received several promotions during that lime.

Was your first job typical?

It was a good on-the-job training position because there were so many experienced people who showed me how to do things. In a small office, where I am now, you are more on your own.

What was the hardest aspect of your job at first?

Getting used to the variety of personalities I had to work with. I was in an office with 200 accountants, and it was sometimes difficult to communicate with them because they tend to work with numbers in a different way.

How long did it take you to get established?

After about two years, I felt solid. But when I left Arthur Young and got into other aspects of bookkeeping, I realized that my knowledge was limited. At that point I worked at a variety of temporary jobs for two years. I got a feel for different companies and the people who worked at them, and I was able to determine what I liked doing best.

What do you currently do?

I work for a small firm that heat-treats metal. There are about 30 employees, and I handle the accounts receivable, which means I do all the credit memos and collections work. I do the billing, bank reconciliations and invoices and payroll. Because it's a small company, they need someone capable of answering phones and typing when needed. I am happy to do that because it makes my day more interesting and clears my head for some of my more challenging tasks.

What do you like most about your work?

I like the interaction and versatility of working in a small company. 1 also like collections work because there are interpersonal skills required. I like the challenge of "reading" people, being cordial while still doing my job-which is to get them to pay their bill.

What do you like least?

When billing is done incorrectly, because that makes my job harder. It makes customers angry, I have to go back and trace the information, and it makes me look like I have egg on my face when I go to collect the wrong amount.

What are you most proud of?

I really feel good when I can see the accounts receivable numbers go down because customers have paid their bills, showing that I have done my job well.

What advice would you offer someone who's thinking about entering the field?

Be sure you like numbers. You really have to enjoy working with them. If you like to work on your own and see the calculations come out but you also like communicating with people, you can still be a bookkeeper by choosing certain areas of the field over others. Also, don't be intimidated by the technology. If you have a basic understanding of computers, you will do all right.

Caren Longman, 29, senior payroll specialist, Cytec Industries, West Paterson, New Jersey

Years in the field: nine

How did you break into the field?

One of my first jobs was in the personnel department of a large firm. I got on-the-job bookkeeping training in the payroll area. From there I went to another company where I developed personnel-payroll skills.

What did you do on your first job?

At that time there were no computers, and I did all the assigned tasks manually. I was filing, keeping time cards, entering payroll figures in the ledgers and doing some benefits work.

Was the position a typical first job?

Yes and no. When I started it was. I had dual responsibilities, being in the personnel-payroll area. But these two departments were split up, and I moved into the payroll end, so I learned more about figuring taxes and tasks specifically tied to being a payroll clerk. That prepared me for what I do now.

What does your current job entail?

I started here as a payroll clerk six years ago. I am now a senior payroll specialist. I still do filing and number input, but I have some more accounting types of tasks now. I still do journal and general ledger entries, but I'm also learning to do quarterly reports.

The department I work in has four people, and we all teach each other aspects of our individual jobs. It makes us all more versatile. I now do most of my work at a computer.

What kind of preparation did you have?

In high school I took a secretarial/office procedures course. I think that gave me an idea of what would be expected. I did temp jobs right out of high school for a while, and that gave me direct office experience.

What was the hardest aspect of the work in the beginning?

I've always liked numbers, but I found some of the more accounting-based procedures difficult.

How long did it take you to get established?

About two years. I had been doing only the payroll part. But the woman who was doing the other bookkeeping tasks left. So I had to learn very quickly and on my own to file state and local taxes and other more complicated tasks.

What do you like most about your work?

I like the numbers and I like the interaction with people, which is part of being involved in payroll. There are about 1.200 employees, so there are a lot of paychecks.

What do you like least?

When it gets tedious, this does happen often. I need new duties then! I need the challenge of learning how to do different things.

How does a person move up in this field?

If you start out in a particular area of bookkeeping, it's hard to make a switch into another area without starting all over and being trained again in those procedures, which are different. You can't just transfer from payroll to sales or marketing. It is smart to try to find out what the potential for advancement is in a company. My company, which is the business unit for a large chemical firm, is one that recognizes a good worker, and my effort has paid off in two promotions within my department over the last six years.

What are you most proud of?

The fact that everything runs smoothly in my department. We are very careful about our work because people's lives are involved. Employees want the right paycheck, and it's our responsibility to make sure that happens.

What advice would you offer someone who's thinking about entering the field?

You have to like numbers, that's for sure. If you try to understand what accounting does, it really helps, because you have to be able to deal with that staff's questions and concerns.

Lorri Hoyt, 33, Financial control administrator, Scott Paper Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Years in the field: five

How did you break into the field?

I worked in secretarial positions where I mainly did word processing. About five years ago, a bookkeeping position opened up in the corporate real estate division, and I applied for it. I liked working as a secretary, but I knew I had gone as high as I could go. Management was willing to let me give it a try.

Was it a usual first job in the bookkeeping field?

It wasn't a standard entry-level position because it had a wide range of responsibilities. I handled the daily transactions of the corporate real estate department. I billed out labor, processed invoices for payment, invoiced tenants, did the ledger maintenance for monthly closings and helped with financial plans by compiling anticipated expenses.

What was the hardest part at first?

I had to learn a lot, but fortunately I wasn't expected to know it all right away. For example, I had to become proficient in Lotus (a spreadsheet software program), which I only had minimal knowledge of.

What kind of preparation did you have for the job?

Typing and keyboarding expertise are critical, and I had that. The accounting courses I took in high school and in a postsecondary school gave me the terminology.

What do you currently do?

I'm now in the Worldwide Accounting division, which is much more project-oriented. We are responsible for the company's freight and distribution and book all the revenue for the company. I have a lot of autonomy as long as I get the work assigned to me done. In some areas I work closely with my direct supervisor; in others, with her superior. So I am learning a great deal.

What do you like most about your work?

The fact that there is a variety of tasks and that I have control over my work, to some extent. I have also had the opportunity in my current job to do some analysis, which is unusual without a higher level of education.

What do you like least?

Sometimes I receive unexpected requests for information that must be handled immediately, which is frustrating because I am not privy to why it's so urgent and I have to postpone other projects I'm working on.

What are you most proud of?

If I weren't recording sales figures, it wouldn't look very good for the company. My supervisors appreciated the fact that I turned last quarter's figures around so fast. They could then present that information to management for their decision-making process sooner.

Also, I got my associate degree in business administration a year and a half ago, which was paid for by my company's tuition reimbursement plan. It took me over five years and required great personal discipline to work every day and then go to school. But it was worth it.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about going into bookkeeping?

It's a field where further education can help, but demonstrating both technical and personal skills goes a long way toward moving you up the ladder. You can show your boss what you are capable of just by persevering and doing the work competently, as well as being willing to do more than what you have to do.
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