How to Build a Career in the Payroll Department

By Robert Half August 13, 2018 at 10:00am

With low unemployment and more than 200,000 new jobs created each month, it’s easy to see why payroll professionals are in huge demand. Interested in a career in payroll? Read on for answers to common questions about working in this field.

Q: How do I get started in the payroll department?

A: While payroll experience is preferable for an entry-level clerical position, it’s not mandatory. The minimum educational requirement is a high school diploma or GED, and employers are willing to offer on-the-job training to new payroll hires. A background in bookkeeping, human resources or administrative assistance can easily transfer to payroll.

Q: What does a payroll clerk do?

A: This entry-level position is part payroll and part clerical. Working under a supervisor, you would assist with data entry, filing, answering employee questions and maintaining accurate records. The payroll department and human resources work closely together, so as a payroll clerk, you might deal with employment verification, processing new hires’ paperwork and helping with orientation. In some departments, a payroll clerk also carries out basic bookkeeping duties.

Read about what's new in the ever-expanding world of payroll professionals.

Q: What are employers looking for in an entry-level payroll clerk?

A: Besides a high school diploma, basic computer and math skills are common requirements. Relevant experience is a plus, but often not required for the right candidate. Job skills are essential, though. Employers appreciate applicants who demonstrate professionalism, can solve problems independently, have good written and verbal communication, pay attention to detail, and provide excellent customer service.

Q: What hard and soft skills are in demand?

A: Read about the trends and required skills for payroll professionals in the slideshow, below.

This slideshare was presented at the American Payroll Association's 2018 Congress, where Michael Steinitz, executive director of Accountemps, was a keynote speaker.

Q: What types of software does a payroll department use?

A: You should be proficient in Microsoft Office, especially Excel, Word and Outlook. Most payroll departments use one of the following pay-processing systems: Sage, ADP, PeopleSoft, UltiPro, Workday, Kronos, Dayforce, Paychex and Paycom. The more you advance in the department, the more you’ll be expected to be proficient in SAP, FreshBooks, NetSuite, Oracle and other financial software.

Q: What is the typical career progression in payroll?

A: After a few years as a payroll clerk, you’re ready for the next rung on the ladder. As a payroll specialist, you would be working more independently in processing payroll, employment verification forms, garnishment orders and so forth. You’d also serve as backup for the payroll coordinator/administrator. At the top of the payroll org chart is the payroll manager, who supervises a team, handles higher-level accounting functions, stays up to date on legislative compliance and trains staff on software, year-end closing and payroll best practices.

Looking for a job in payroll? See the job descriptions and duties for different positions in the payroll department.

The higher you go in the payroll department, the more degrees you’ll need. After a GED, the next step is an associate or bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, management, business administration or human resources. A master’s degree is a preferred qualification for those planning on advancing to a leadership role in HR or finance.

Q: Does payroll have a certification program?

A: Yes. The American Payroll Association (APA) offers two industry-recognized payroll certifications. Created for entry-level employees, the Fundamental Payroll Certification (FPC) covers the core concepts required to get started in the industry. The good thing about this credential is that no prior payroll experience is necessary. To pass the exam, the APA recommends six to 12 weeks of study and review. The organization offers study guides, prep courses, web-based training, books and a boot camp.

For those with more experience and wishing to lead a department, the Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) offers an advanced overview of payroll topics, ranging from a mastery of core concepts to in-depth accounting and finance practices.

Both certifications verify a specific level of knowledge and can help you stand out from other applicants during a job search.

Q: What are salaries in payroll like?

A: Payroll offers excellent job and salary prospects. The salary midpoint for a payroll clerk is $39,000, according to the 2019 Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals. For a payroll coordinator or administrator, it's $46,000, and for a payroll manager or supervisor, $72,750.

Salaries range widely from city to city and should be adjusted for each market using the Salary Calculator. At the midpoint, candidates have average experience with the necessary skills to meet the job requirements, and the role may be in an industry where competition for talent is moderate.

The payroll department is a rewarding place to work, bringing you into contact with people throughout the organization. If you’re looking for a career with plentiful job opportunities and interesting work, now is a great time to get your foot in the door.

This post has been updated to reflect more current information.

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