If you’ve browsed a job search website recently, you may have noticed a lot of postings for payroll workers. Why? Many industries are adding positions and need staff to not only process payroll but also handle related areas like accounts payable, talent management and human resources.
While you may not have dreamed of a job in payroll as a kid (astronauts come across a little cooler), it's an excellent career choice for anyone with a knack for data, details and customer service.
So, how does one get started in this fast-growing profession?
How to land your first payroll job
Most payroll careers begin with a position as a payroll clerk, which helps with the day-to-day activities of the department. This includes entering data, processing time cards, maintaining files and responding to queries. The clerk also assists with higher-level tasks, such as tax preparation, e-filing and account reconciliations.
Practical skills for a payroll clerk
Payroll clerk positions often don’t require direct previous experience. Rather, employers seek candidates with the right blend of technical and soft skills. These are the fundamental requirements:
- High school diploma or equivalent
- Strong mathematical abilities
- Understanding of payroll, benefits and tax concepts
- Experience using Microsoft Excel, Word and Outlook
- Excellent typing and data-entry skills
Postsecondary education isn’t typically a requirement, but it’s definitely a plus. And people with prior work experience in office administration, HR and/or bookkeeping — especially accounts payable —have an advantage, as these areas tend to overlap with payroll in many companies.
Interpersonal skills for a payroll clerk
In addition to basic technical knowledge and abilities, a candidate for an entry-level payroll position should have certain soft skills:
- Ability to work independently
- Discretion and professionalism
- Creative problem solving
- Excellent written and verbal communication
- Accuracy and attention to detail
- Empathy and a customer service mindset
Bilingualism — excellent English as well as French, Chinese, Punjabi or Spanish — is a strong asset for positions in an organization with a multicultural workforce and/or a presence in Quebec. Many employers seeking payroll clerks prefer candidates with the right personality and cultural fit, and then offer training to fill in skills gaps.
The payroll career path
Once you’ve landed that first payroll job, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to advance your career. Jobs within the department include:
- Payroll coordinators/administrators — These professionals are in charge of payroll processing, ledger reconciliation, tax remittance, audits, and other higher-level financial tasks. The median national starting salary for this position is $54,500, according to the 2019 Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals.
- Payroll managers/supervisors — They are in charge of the department and responsible for records accuracy, legislative compliance, and staff development. They act as the point of contact for all payroll-related escalations and for the Canada Revenue Agency. The median national starting salary for this position is $77,000.
How to advance in your payroll career
Ready to move up in your payroll career? Here’s what you can do to help you make the climb:
1. Get certified in payroll.
Whichever payroll job you go for, your application has a better chance of getting noticed if you hold a recognized certificate. The Canadian Payroll Association offers two levels of certification:
- Payroll Compliance Practitioner (PCP) — Because this foundational certificate doesn’t require previous work experience, the PCP credential is a great way to get started in this field. The study topics and exam cover the fundamentals of payroll, labour laws, and an introduction to accounting.
- Certified Payroll Manager (CPM) — This certificate requires at least two years of direct experience in payroll and is excellent preparation for leading a payroll department. CPM holders have demonstrated their knowledge of industry best practices, managerial accounting and regulatory compliance requirements throughout the annual payroll cycle.
2. Work toward a postsecondary diploma.
Even with significant payroll experience, you’ll have better luck climbing the career ladder with at least a bachelor’s degree in business, accounting, human resources or a related field. Some employers have a tuition reimbursement program, making it easier for you to get ahead.
3. Collaborate with other departments.
Regardless of the size or type of company, payroll sits at the nexus of several departments. This means you will often work with — and learn from — colleagues in accounting and finance, HR/benefits and IT. Use these opportunities to broaden your network and learn all about how the company operates. Hiring managers will value the business acumen and teamwork skills you’ll glean from this type of experience.
4. Upgrade your IT knowledge.
The higher you want to advance, the more technical skills you’ll need. Here are the must-have abilities for a payroll career:
- Advanced Excel skills, including macros and pivot tables
- Experience in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system like SAP, Sage or Microsoft Dynamics AX
- Understanding of cloud-based payroll platforms, such as Dayforce, Workday or Ceridian
- Data analytics and reporting using the above software
5. Prepare for what’s next.
To position yourself for the payroll department of the future, get familiar with emerging technologies like process automation, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and blockchains and cryptocurrency. Having advanced knowledge of these and the next big innovations in the field will give you a leg up on higher-level positions.
Your future in payroll
Payroll is a fast-moving sector in need of skilled workers. Not only are jobs plentiful, but so are advancement opportunities. So, whether you start from the ground up or make a lateral shift from another department, consider a job in the payroll department.
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