How to Advance on the Payroll Career Path

By Robert Half on December 13, 2018 at 5:45am

Job seekers are taking a good look at the payroll profession, and it’s easy to see why. Ever-changing tax laws and reporting standards mean demand for people who know how to navigate these areas is in demand across the country.

In fact, the 2019 Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals has highlighted payroll management as one of the hot areas of employment for the past several years.

If you’re thinking about starting or switching to a career in payroll, you’re probably wondering what lies ahead. Here’s an introductory guide to the payroll career path:

Payroll clerk

Most career trajectories in the payroll department start with the clerk position. Overseen 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 HR. New hires with little or no experience can expect a starting salary of about $32,250. Those with strong skill sets and several years of relevant experience can start around $60,750.

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 Salary Guide) is $39,000.

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 Microsoft Office. Payroll certifications like the Fundamental Payroll Certification (FPC) from the American Payroll Association (APA) can help your application stand out. In addition, top candidates have excellent verbal and written communication skills, robust problem-solving abilities and a dedication to customer service.

Payroll coordinator/administrator

The next step on the payroll career path is the coordinator or administrator role, which is responsible for more complex tasks. A typical day for this professional includes running payroll reports, preparing statements, reconciling ledgers, checking for compliance and making sure taxes are properly paid. There may also be duties related to onboarding and employee benefits. The salary midpoint for this position is $46,000 and can go as high as $72,750 or more for candidates with above-average technical skills and a rich work history.

To move up to this role, you’ll need an excellent command of common payroll systems like ADP or Kronos, as well as strong soft skills — especially communication, problem solving and attention to detail.

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


Payroll data analyst

Becoming an analyst can mean stepping away from the daily tasks of payroll processing. Instead, you would be mining the company’s personnel data to identify trends, suggest improvements and flag issues before they become difficult to fix. The national salary midpoint for entry-level data analysts is $57,750.

Payroll experience is vital, as is a thorough understanding of the field’s regulatory issues. You’ll also need to demonstrate strong math and problem-solving skills, plus the ability to model data using the more advanced features in Microsoft Excel. Experience with cloud-based payroll technology is an advantage, and familiarity with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems also helps.

Payroll manager/supervisor

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

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, 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 $72,750. Senior payroll managers with an advanced degree and 10-plus years of experience can earn $126,250 or more.

Payroll director

With three to five years of relevant management experience, a payroll manager can land the role of payroll director. This position can be found in large multinational corporations. Payroll directors usually report to the CFO or organizational equivalent, and the focus of their work is to set payroll strategy and oversee teams in multiple states and countries.

The salary varies, depending on the payroll department’s place within the company. A comparable starting salary is that of a director of accounting, which has a midpoint of $143,250.

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, IT, data analysis and compliance/risk management. If you’re willing to learn all these disciplines through the years, it can be a very rewarding career path.

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