How to Build a Career in the Payroll Department by Jennifer Cox

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 payroll?

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.

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. Employees 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 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.
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.

The payroll department is a rewarding place to work, bringing you into contact with people from every aspect of an 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.

Accountemps, a Robert Half company, is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals. Accountemps has more than 300 locations worldwide. More resources, including job search services can be found on the Accountemps website.

Feel free to reach out to our local representative, Jennifer Cox via phone at 214.499.4532 or for more information!