How to Advance on the Payroll Career Path

By Robert Half on August 6, 2021 at 8:00pm

Job seekers are taking a good look at the payroll profession, and for good reason.

Ever-changing tax laws and reporting standards, and the need for people who know how to navigate them, are driving demand for payroll professionals. Payroll pros have also been on the front line of helping their organization support a new or expanded remote workforce and ensure that employees receive timely, accurate payment while working from home during the pandemic.

For the past several years, the Robert Half Salary Guide for the accounting and finance industry has highlighted payroll management as one of the hottest areas of employment. The payroll manager/supervisor position, discussed later this post, is one of the most in-demand positions this year.

If you’re thinking about starting or switching to a career in payroll, you’re probably wondering what lies ahead — and what type of salary you could earn at various job levels in this profession. Here’s an introductory guide to the payroll career path:

Payroll clerk

Most career trajectories in the payroll department start with the payroll clerk position. Managed by a more senior professional, the payroll clerk focuses on day-to-day functions such as issuing paychecks and responding to employee queries. In smaller organizations, this role may overlap with basic duties in accounting and/or human resources (HR).

New hires with little or no experience in the payroll profession can expect to earn a starting salary of about $33,500, according to Robert Half’s latest Salary Guide. Professionals with strong skill sets and several years of relevant experience can start around $62,250.

Of course, salaries can vary by location, so use our Salary Calculator to see the range for your city. The median national salary (referred to as the midpoint in the guide) for the payroll clerk role is $40,250.

You don’t need a college degree to be hired as a payroll clerk, but you should have a knack for math and be proficient in using Microsoft Office applications like Excel and Word. Payroll certifications such as the Fundamental Payroll Certification (FPC) from the American Payroll Association (APA) can help your application stand out. Also, top candidates typically have excellent verbal and written communication skills, robust problem-solving abilities, and a customer service mindset.

See this post for payroll interview questions you should be ready to answer.

Payroll coordinator/administrator

The next step on the payroll career path is the coordinator or administrator role, which is responsible for more complex payroll tasks. A typical day for this professional might include running payroll reports, preparing statements, reconciling ledgers, checking for compliance and making sure taxes are properly paid. There may also be duties related to employee onboarding and benefits.

The salary midpoint for this position is $47,500 and can go as high as $75,000 or more for candidates with above-average technical skills and a rich work history.

To move up to the payroll coordinator/administrator role, you’ll need an excellent command of commonly used automated payroll solutions such as ADP or Kronos, and possibly other services like and Gusto, depending on the size of your organization. Strong soft skills — especially communication, problem solving and attention to detail — are also essential to success in this role.

At this level, many employers expect candidates to have at least an associate degree. The Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) certification is also a common preference, or even a requirement. This more advanced certification from the APA is open only to payroll practitioners with extensive experience, as this credential affirms your understanding of the main competencies in the field.


Payroll data analyst

Becoming an analyst as part of your payroll career path can mean stepping away from the daily tasks of payroll processing. As a data analyst focused on payroll data, you would mine the company’s personnel data to identify trends, suggest improvements and flag issues before they become challenging to fix. The national salary midpoint for data analysts with up to one year of experience is $60,000.

Payroll experience is vital for this role, as is a thorough understanding of the field’s regulatory issues. You’ll also need to demonstrate strong mathematical and problem-solving skills, plus the ability to model data using the more advanced features in Microsoft Excel.

Experience with cloud-based payroll technology can be an advantage, and familiarity with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems can be useful for this position, too.

Payroll manager/supervisor

After about five years down the payroll career path, you’re ready to take the lead. Responsibilities at the payroll manager/supervisor level include budgeting, maintaining compliance, guiding departmental policy, partnering with other divisions and advising senior executives. There’s also the day-to-day work of staff management: hiring and firing, conducting performance evaluations, and guiding your team’s professional development.

The skill set required at this level depends largely on where payroll sits within the company. Some payroll managers also oversee HR or accounts payable. In addition to the CPP certification, employers seek candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, HR or business.

The starting salary midpoint for a payroll supervisor is $75,500, according to the Robert Half Salary Guide for 2021. Senior payroll managers with an advanced degree and 10 or more years of experience can earn a salary of $130,250 or more.

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Is the payroll career path for you?

A career in payroll is about more than remunerating employees. It’s a multidisciplinary field that encompasses finance, HR, customer service, information technology, data analysis, and compliance and risk management. If you’re willing to learn relevant skills and knowledge related to these disciplines throughout your career, you could make the payroll career path even more rewarding.

Also, to succeed in any role in this profession, you’ll need a sharp eye for detail, excellent mathematical and time management skills, plus the ability to juggle various tasks and work well under pressure. Strong communication, organizational and problem-solving skills are other must-have abilities. Honesty, trustworthiness and reliability are also key attributes most employers specifically seek.

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