If you ask most high school students today what they want to be when they graduate college, chances are pretty slim that “accountant” will be among the top choices. You can hardly blame students for being disinterested in accounting. Accountants have long been portrayed in the media as rigid, nerdy number-crunching men who exist in their own strange world filled with numbers that have meanings only they understand.
Megan Lewczyk (@meganlewczyk) is a perfect example of today’s new accountant. As a certified public accountant (CPA) with a master’s degree in accountancy from the University of Denver, Megan is a location independent entrepreneur who travels frequently. Her successful career includes working at one of the “Big Four” accounting firm, launching her own accounting consultancy, and teaching college-level accounting online. As a CPA, she is hired to develop creative solutions to problems. Today, software does most of the number crunching and data output, while accountants interpret what the numbers mean and how organizations should behave based on the data. Megan will be the first to tell you, accounting ain’t what it used to be:
“Accounting is all about creating useful information from the data that we’re collecting in loads and loads and loads, so that someone can make a decision. That’s what your job is — helping people make decisions. If you’re in a big enough company, multimillion dollar decisions are made, and you’re the person who helps them make those decisions with data.”
While accounting jobs and procedures are undergoing massive changes, what hasn’t changed is the industry’s financial stability. Accounting is still a “future-proof” career. Recent research indicates that the demand for accounting skills is so high, and experts in these fields are in such short supply, that we can be confident there will be job opportunities for accountants in the future regardless of economy fluctuations (Accountants, architects and salespeople have ‘future-proof’ jobs). A study by the International Federation of Accountants shows that, after the last economic crisis (2009-2013), the accounting industry grew worldwide faster than total employment increases (Study: Number of Accountants Grew Worldwide Post-Crisis).
Perhaps accounting should be high on students’ list of desirable 21st century careers. But how should educators encourage and prepare students to enter this awesome field that is innovating quickly?
Megan credits the beginnings of her interest in math and accounting to the Interactive Mathematics Program® (IMP) — a problem-based math curriculum that teaches students to think critically to solve problems, rather than memorize equations and rules the traditional math is taught. It has been almost 10 years since Megan graduated from Skyline High School (Longmont, CO) where she took IMP math. Like a blast from the past, Megan reached out to us recently to share her story. We were pleasantly surprised to receive her message (to say the least!):
“Hi IMP Team –
I am a product of the IMP program and would like to share my success story with you. I participated in IMP Math throughout high school (Skyline HS – Longmont, CO) and graduated in 2006. Now, almost a decade later, I am a licensed certified public accountant (CPA). I credit IMP for teaching me the skills that I needed to succeed in accounting. Short-term, I didn’t score as well on the standardized math exams (SAT, ACT, GMAT). Long-term, I am so glad I was in the program! I had a great foundation in math that served me throughout my academic career. Plus, when it counted, I did well on the CPA exam. The CPA exam tests at a higher level of learning (e.g., application and evaluation) much like IMP. IMP helped develop the critical thinking skills that I used while earning my BSBA and MAcc at the University of Denver and beyond.
I am happy to share my story.
Megan Lewczyk, CPA”
In school, Megan Lewczyk was the type of student that loved to ask the “why” questions. It was this natural curiosity that compelled her teacher to recommend her for the non-traditional IMP program. This was the beginning of a lifelong passion for math that would eventually lead to a promising career as an accountant. For Megan, IMP math and accounting go hand-in-hand:
“There’s no Advanced Placement (AP) program for accounting, so you don’t really get introduced to it [accounting] until college, and most people get into it because they like math. And it’s not [standard] math. It’s IMP math. It’s problems and cases and learning how to use the logic behind the accounting structure, and the debits and the credits and how it works together, and I think that has a lot of similarities to IMP.”
— Higher-order cognitive skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and analytical ability
— Professional skepticism
— A thorough understanding of professional and ethical responsibilities
— A strong understanding of the business environment and processes
— Effective communication skills
“They were the ones who really embraced the program and were excited about teaching, which I think helped. And they had fun ways to get us excited about projects and little add–ins that they would bring, props and those types of things to make it fun. The program supported that.”
Like Megan Lewczyk, former IMP students Rex Moribe (How a Math Program Turned a Surfer Kid Into a 21st Century Problem-Solving Whiz) and Jake Lyman (Jake Lyman Thinks Outside the Box) also attest to the importance of engaging students in creative math that asks them to collaboratively solve real-world problems:
“A key part of my job right now is sitting down with brokers and agents and figuring out what their existing problems are, and how our software can help them. So throughout life, I think IMP played a much larger role in developing that strong skill set of problem solving.” — Jake Lyman (Vice President of Product Operations at ZipRealty)
Today’s math classes look very different from math classes 10 or 20 years ago. Math today is creative, fun, engaging and student-centered. This opens a world of great opportunities for students to consider professions they never thought they could in the past — like accounting. But much needs to be done to expose students to these opportunities. “I don’t think that in the US we do enough in school to introduce students to accounting. There’s no AP program for accounting, so you don’t really get introduced to it until college,” explains Megan.
For math teachers interested in introducing students to the new accounting profession, Megan suggests visiting Start Here Go Places (a free website that provides teacher and student resources on accounting careers, including information on finding accounting jobs, learning accounting skills, and other aspects of the accounting profession). The site is full of great, informative articles like How to Spot a Promising Future CPA and CPA-centric Field Trips. Follow them on Twitter at @StartHereGoPlaces. This, in addition to using IMP math, is a great start for any student to gain an understanding of the new accounting field and to prepare them for this rewarding career.
Below, Megan shares her story and more insights into how students can succeed in math and accounting today.
Interview with a World Class, Problem-Solving CPA
Education Insider: Tell us a bit about where and how you work.
Megan: Sure. I am a CPA. I have had different iterations of my career since I graduated from college with my master’s degree. I worked in Big Four public accounting in Denver, and then I relocated with my fiancé (now husband) to South Carolina. Now, I have a remote laptop lifestyle, because he’s traveling a lot for work, so I travel with him. I do technical writing and teach accounting at the collegiate level online. That’s my current career path.
Education Insider: We received wonderful feedback from you about your experience as an IMP Math student. What was the impetus for you reaching out to us after all this time to share your story?
Megan: It’s funny that you say that, because I had a dream about two weeks ago — it got me thinking about how much the IMP program affected my ability to do accounting when I finally got into college. When we’d get to a case project, everybody else’s eyes would glaze over and I was like, “Let’s do this. All right, here are all the parts, let’s go. Here, you get this part. You get this part…” I innately had an ability to do those projects fairly easily, and people noticed that and enjoyed being in groups with me. I credit that to IMP. I thought that it’d be helpful to share my story.
Education Insider: You mentioned that people at your job love working with you in group settings. Why do you think that is?
Megan: I think that most of the time when you work in a group there’s usually different skill levels, and you don’t get to practice that a lot in K-12 education. It’s usually individual work — and it’s test-based. You have to get into college individually on your test scores. There’s not as much of the group dynamic work [in traditional classes] but IMP does a ton of that. So I once I got to college, that was a huge benefit at the University of Denver — having the ability to work in a team.
Education Insider: Did you know at that time (in high school) that you wanted to be an accountant?
Megan: I did not. That came after high school. I don’t think that in the US we do enough school to introduce students to accounting. There’s no AP program for accounting, so you don’t really get introduced to it until college, and most people get into it because they like math. But it’s not [standard] math. It’s IMP Math. It’s problems and cases and learning how to use the logic behind the accounting structure and how it works together. I think that has a lot of similarities to IMP.
Education Insider: When most people think of accounting, they don’t think of it is as creative. They think of it as formulaic, redundant, math.
Megan: Yes, that’s exactly right. I think that’s a misconception. Maybe that’s how it used to be. But I’m working on a project now, because the CPA Exam is changing in 2017, and they just released an exposure draft on what they’re changing in it. It’s progressing to keep up with the profession and [the exposure draft is] the main summary of what they’re changing. They’re trying to test higher-order cognitive skills including critical thinking, problem solving, analytical ability and professional skepticism. And I think that’s the type of test that IMP math prepares you for. I get questions from my current accounting students and I’m able to explain concepts better because I understand the underneath workings of how it all fits together. I don’t think you get that if you just memorize an equation.
Education Insider: What do you remember about your IMP math teachers? How did they help you with this new way of doing math?
Megan: I remember that they were the top-notch teachers in the school. I know Ken Allen was one of the ones I had at Skyline. Heidi Ringer is now the principal there. They were the ones who really embraced the program and were excited about teaching, which I think helped. And they had fun ways to get us excited about projects — little add-ins that they would bring — props and those types of things to make it fun. The program supported that.
And I also liked using the TI-83 calculator in class. Now, it’s more common, but at the time, being able to program on the TI-83 was a unique thing. In public accounting, I was an IT auditor. So I did a lot of IT-related testing. Every little bit of the computer science background that I picked up along the way was helping me to be able to eventually do that job. Nowadays, you don’t see the underlying computer programming behind a lot of things. Even though now it’s a little bit legacy, it’s still an important thing. You really do figure out what it means to do programming like that.
Education Insider: Did you experience any difficulties transitioning to inquiry-based math?
Megan: We would get the unit problems — they were some sort of challenge problems, you’d have a longer period of time to get work through them. They were really stretch questions, where you really didn’t know what the answer was supposed to be. I think I was challenged most by those, and those were the ones you couldn’t wait until the last minute to do. You tried to do it the night before. You were banging your head against the wall. I think those were the challenging ones.
Education Insider: How would you suggest teachers and schools introduce the idea of being an accountant to students to adequately prepare them for the new more creative accounting field today?
Megan: I tell everyone that accounting is a language with an underlying framework. If you understand the language, which is what you learn in the basic accounting class, you can speak with people confidently about business terms. You know what you’re talking about when you discuss profit and revenue — you understand they’re not interchangeable. The colloquial use of the terms doesn’t totally apply. You know what the technical definition is. It’s a language first.
Then, once you proceed into intermediate and advanced accounting, you learn how to record things so that they accurately depict what’s going on financially for a company or a small business. And that’s the focus. You’re trying to portray the situation as accurately as possible. There’s some math. You need to know how to do equations so you can solve for things. As you get to a higher level, you need to solve for “x,” or you need to put one equation into another equation and determine the answer. You need to know the basic foundation, but you need to know how to figure out (with the information you’re given) how that applies to the concepts you’ve learned. Accounting is all about creating useful information from the data that we’re collecting in loads and loads and loads and loads, so that someone can make an informed decision. That’s what your job is — you help people make decisions — big decisions. If you’re in a big enough company, multi-million dollar decisions are made and you’re the person who helps them make those decisions with data.
Education Insider: What else would you suggest that parents and teachers do to help math students consider math-related careers?
Megan: Demonstrating what types of careers are out there. I think it would help if high schools could say to students, “Okay, you’re graduating and you want to do something with your life. Here are some great opportunities that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Accounting is a growing field and you’re going to get out of school and be able to pay back your debts.”
I think that there’s just not enough dialogue about what is available. There’s such a misconception about what accountants do now. The stuff that accountants used to do is digitalized now. So we’re really more in a creative consulting role than we used to be.
Education Insider: Can you give an example of what you, as an accountant today, do that accountants didn’t necessarily do 15 years ago?
Megan: Take, for example, bookkeeping or tax preparation. A number of years ago, you would be given all of the hard-copy documents, and you would be doing a lot of data entry, making sure that the accounts reconciled and balanced, and looking for errors in accounting. It was a lot of cleanup.
Now, software does some of that work and cleanup. And so, if you’re scanning all your receipts when you get them, technology automatically digitalizes that and puts them into your accounting system. Now, as an accountant, my role is, “Okay, I see that your costs for x, y and z are really high, and your expenses are projected to increase. Here are the areas where those expenses are increasing. What can we do to decrease your costs in those areas?” You use the information to give your clients value, as opposed to just getting the books done so that they have a report they can share with their shareholders.
Education Insider: It sounds like you’re helping companies to be smarter about the decisions that they’re making. So, accounting is cool now!
Megan: It is! As a CPA, one of our goals is to become a trusted advisor. When you have a medical question, you go to your doctor. But when you have a question about business, who do you go to? Our goal as a profession is for it to be the CPA. We may not be able to incorporate your business [like attorneys], but we can help you on the day-to-day decision-making.
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