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Settling accounts

Newly qualified accountants are abandoning tradition to become business decision-makers

Veridiana Scarpelli

Surrounded by stacks of paper and filing cabinets full of folders and documents, accountants have long been seen as for responsible for monotonous and repetitive routines. While the typical tools of the trade used to be stamps and calculators, modern accounting professionals need to be prepared to interpret contexts and help steer businesses, taking leadership roles in decision-making processes.

“As well as mastering the application of accounting rules, accountants have become decision-making agents over the years,” says Fernando de Almeida Santos, head of the professional master’s degree in accounting, controllership, and finance at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). Changes in labor and tax law generated by new standards and regulations, as well as the increasing globalization of the business sector and professionals themselves, are reinforcing the need for accountants to develop the skills needed to analyze, control, develop, and monitor accounting information systems and ensure their company maintains transparency and a positive image.

“The idea of accountants as only interested in numbers is still widespread. More important than mastering mathematics is an in-depth understanding of the business sector they work in, using their accounting knowledge to support the financial health of the company or institution they work for,” explains Santos. By taking a broader approach, accounting professionals are able to work in controllership, finance, investments, auditing, forensic accounting, consulting, and other fields.

A significant milestone in the sector’s transformation was the 2007 adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), which define criteria and standardize the way organizations classify and record economic and accounting events. Created to facilitate the understanding of financial statements, the standards also help to make Brazilian companies more internationally competitive. “When an international investor is unable to understand a company’s financial statements, they instantly start to see the investment as riskier,” says Santos. In addition to guaranteeing the clarity and transparency of financial statements, accountants need to be prepared to support an organization’s financial health. One example of this is explanatory notes, which are increasingly being used to provide detailed information on an institution’s financial situation.

According to Brazil’s Federal Council for Accounting (CFC) there are 358,825 qualified accountants in the country. When accountants without higher education qualifications are included, the number rises to 516,386. The states with the greatest number of professionals in the field are São Paulo with 98,405, Rio de Janeiro with 36,301, and Minas Gerais with 32,548. Data from the last National Census of Higher Education, published by Brazil’s National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP), indicates that accounting courses were the fourth most sought after in the country, with 358,240 enrollments in 2019 alone and 49,947 new professionals graduating in the same year.

Areas of specialization
1. Auditing: overseeing the accounts of companies and public or nongovernmental institutions
2. Managerial accounting: recording and analyzing financial and asset operations; monitoring transactions and providing data to help decision making
3. Forensic accounting: analyzing financial operations and searching for evidence of mistakes or fraud
4. Planning and controllership: proposing measures for balancing accounts and improving profitability
5. Teaching: giving classes on technical and higher education courses; training in the field of accounting

First created in the mid-1940s, undergraduate courses in accounting take four years to complete at most educational institutions. In addition to mathematics, statistics, and administration, students also study macroeconomics, tax law, auditing, cost analysis, capital markets, and social legislation. “Nowadays, accounting degrees consider the fact that graduates will take a leading role in financial matters and that more will be demanded of them than in the past,” says Jacqueline Veneroso Alves da Cunha, a professor from the Department of Accounting Sciences at the School of Economic Sciences (FACE) of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

Inaugurated in 1945 and considered one of the most respected in the country, the UFMG course aims to train professionals who are qualified to manage accounting matters and make decisions in line with the best interests of organizations, as well as being held responsible for such issues by the public. At first, students take classes in law, microeconomics, mathematics, administration, and other subjects. In the second phase, the content becomes more instrumental, through disciplines in basic and intermediate accounting and research methodologies. Finally, in the third stage, students study advanced accounting based on taxation, public spending, costing, economic and financial analysis, auditing, forensic accounting, budgeting, controllership, and information systems. The UFMG course is five years long. “In addition to not having classes on Saturdays, we also allow more time to fulfill extracurricular activities, such as participating in events, and elective subjects provided in the curriculum,” adds Cunha. The optional content includes a range of accounting topics, such as management by algorithms, managerial control, emerging issues in public management, corporate income tax, and general and professional ethics.

To be professionally qualified, graduates of the course must pass a proficiency exam, offered by the CFC twice a year. Participants are tested on their knowledge of general and specific topics in the field, such as professional ethics, financial investigation, and auditing. Roughly 41,000 people take the exam every six months. The average number of passes in 2018 and 2019 was 12,000.

Roberta Cristina da Silva graduated in accounting in 2013 and worked for a tax consultancy in the city of São Paulo for nine years. Her interest in teaching in higher education led her to pursue a professional master’s degree in accounting, controllership, and finance at PUC-SP. “During my master’s research, I began to understand the importance of integral accounting and the role of accountants in making ethical decisions in line with the interests of companies,” says Silva, who completed the course in 2019. Her research focused on accounting and auditing, investigating the indirect financing obtained by companies that choose not to pay social security contributions within the established deadlines. “I used a sample of 40 companies with debts above R$10 million that despite being large and having good results and high revenues, wait for opportunities to benefit from debt installment payments occasionally offered by the federal government,” she explains.

As in many professions, technological advances such as machine learning and artificial intelligence are facilitating many of the most repetitive tasks, especially those related to bookkeeping, tax calculation, and debit and credit entries. “Automation means that opportunities for professionals accustomed to doing one single type of job and not moving with the times are on the decline,” concludes Santos, from PUC-SP.