Payroll Professional Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Learn about a payroll professional's job description, salary and education requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of a payroll professional career.
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Payroll Professional Careers: Pros and Cons

Payroll professionals process time sheets and send out paychecks to all employees of an organization, and therefore integral to the functioning of the business. If you are interested in becoming a payroll clerk, read the pros and cons below to see if it adds up to a viable career path.

Pros of Becoming a Payroll Professional
Often does not require postsecondary education (47% of workers have only a high school education)*
Can work in all kinds of industries (financial institutions, government, healthcare, etc.)**
Certification can improve job prospects***
Work during normal business hours**

Cons of Becoming a Payroll Professional
Low earnings potential (only top 10% exceed $58,550)**
Career growth limited by technological innovations**
Can be a stressful job**
Job tasks require strict adherence to policies and procedures*

Sources: *O*NET OnLine, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***American Payroll Association.

Career Information

Job Description

Payroll professionals - also known as payroll clerks or administrators - are responsible for making sure employees receive paychecks in the correct amount and at proper intervals, based on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly schedule. Using software and other computation tools, payroll professionals process time cards, attendance and leave time; they must also factor in benefits, state and federal taxes, wage garnishments or other deductions.

Most of a payroll professional's work duties are based on strict deadlines, which include pay dates and reporting periods mandated by the state and federal government. Thus, it is a very important for payroll professionals to stay organized and maintain accurate records, balancing and reconciling any discrepancies they find. Payroll professionals often work closely with human resources departments to process new employee records and set up payment methods, like direct deposit.

Salary Information and Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), payroll professionals earned an average yearly salary of $40,910 in 2014 (www.bls.gov). The lowest ten percent of wage earners in this profession earned $25,970 or less per year; the highest ten percent of earners made $58,550 or more in 2014.

While payroll professionals were most commonly employed in industries like management companies (about 8% of the bookkeeping professionals) and tax preparation and other payroll services (5%). However, these industries pay lower mean wages ($42,870 and $39,010) than smaller, but more lucrative, sectors of the profession, such as personal accountant for high profile clients like athletes or celebrities ($69,300) and support activities for water transportation ($57,800).

Payroll and timekeeping clerks can expect average employment growth from 2012-2022, with a projected rate of 13% for the decade (2% higher than the rest of the financial clerk industry). The BLS said that due to overall economic growth there will be more companies in need of payroll professionals assisting with disbursements. However, technological advances in bookkeeping software and automated payroll processing may tamp down industry growth.

Career Skills and Requirements

A position as a payroll professional typically requires a high school education and on-the-job training. Some employers prefer applicants who have a certificate or an associate's degree in accounting or another business-related field; other employers are willing to substitute payroll experience for formal training. Occasionally, top supervisory or administrative positions require a bachelor's degree. However, even these positions might be filled by candidates with a combination of job experience and education.

Top Skills for Payroll Professionals

Since payroll professionals spend their days calculating wages, taxes, deductions and other numerical data for payroll processing and financial reporting, it is a good career for people with excellent math and quantitative skills. Payroll professionals also need to stay organized, because they may work with hundreds or thousands of confidential employee records, and any inaccuracies can lead to serious problems.

Payroll is a detail-oriented field, and these professionals must stay up to date on state and federal tax regulations, company policies and other regulations. Finally, payroll professionals need communication skills to work with human resources personnel, auditors and other outside contacts, as well as to explain payroll policies and benefits packages to company employees.

Job Postings from Real Employers

A search of available job postings showed that employers are looking for payroll professionals with a range of computer skills, including proficiency with Microsoft Office and any number of timekeeping and payroll software packages, including ADP, Ceridian, Paychex and Kronos, among others. Here's a sample of available job postings on CareerBuilder.com from April 2012:

  • A Maryland aerospace firm advertised for a payroll specialist for bi-weekly payroll processing and administration of employee benefits. The responsibilities of this position included multi-state payroll and tax processing, account reconciliation and assisting employees with questions. Three years of payroll experience and excellent communication skills were listed as requirements.
  • A Las Vegas event management company wanted a payroll specialist to process hourly union employee paychecks on a weekly schedule. In addition to reconciliation and validation of all payroll reports, the candidate needed to understand applicable regulations and ensure compliance. A high school education and 3-5 years of payroll experience were listed as requirements; however, the employer preferred applicants with a bachelor's degree as well as professional certification.
  • A construction company in Colorado advertised for a payroll assistant to work under the supervision of the payroll administrator in processing weekly payroll. Job duties included processing time cards, calculating pay and taxes, figuring benefit deductions and balancing periodic accounts related to taxes and unemployment. For this position, the company wanted a combination of an associate's degree and 1-3 years of experience, or the equivalent.

Standing Out

Earn an Associate's Degree

In 2011, O*Net OnLine reported that 21% of payroll professionals had taken some college courses but had not earned a degree, while 16% held associate's degrees. An associate's degree program in accounting can help you stand out from other applicants because it gives you the business knowledge and computer skills employers expect. Students in these programs learn the skills needed to process payroll, report financial information and analyze data.

Coursework usually includes several areas of accounting, as well as business law, economics, statistics and professional communication. Additionally, accounting degree programs include instruction in the kinds of computer programs and keyboarding skills payroll professionals use on a daily basis. As an added bonus, a degree program in accounting may prepare you for a range of related careers or a position that combines payroll and other tasks, such as accounts payable or bookkeeping.

Get Certified

Payroll professionals can also set themselves apart by earning industry-recognized certifications. The American Payroll Association (APA) offers the Fundamental Payroll Certification (FPC) for entry-level employees and is valid for three years.

For payroll clerks and specialists with a combination of work experience and education, the Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) designation is available and is valid for five years. Both renewable certifications may count toward college credits as well. In preparation for these certifications, the APA offers PayTrain courses at colleges and universities around the country; you can also complete APA courses online.

Other Careers to Consider

Billing and Posting Clerk

If you want to work in a financial clerk position, you could consider becoming a billing or posting clerk. They are responsible for preparing billing statements, assessing charges, verifying account information and contacting customers about accounts.

The education and training requirements are about the same as those for entry-level payroll professionals; O*Net reported 36% of billing, cost and rate clerks had a high school education and 25% held an associate's degree in 2011. Billing and posting clerks earned an average of about $34,000 per year in 2011, and the BLS projected faster than average employment growth for billing and posting clerks, with a 20% increase from 2010-2020.

Accounting Clerk

Like payroll professionals, accounting clerks work extensively with computers, especially for keeping records of financial transactions, making calculations and using spreadsheet and database programs. Depending on the size of the company, you might handle all of the accounting functions or focus on one area, such as accounts payable or accounts receivable. The BLS said many accounting clerks enter the field with a high school diploma and complete some on-the-job training; you might also consider an associate's degree in accounting. The average annual wage for accounting clerks was around $36,000 in 2011, and job growth was estimated at 14% for the decade from 2010 to 2020, the BLS said.

With additional education, training and experience, accounting clerks can advance in the profession and become accountants. The BLS said most accountants have earned a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree might be required by some firms; O*Net OnLine reported that 79% of accountants held a bachelor's degree in 2011. The BLS said the CPA licensing can also improve job prospects for accountants, and job growth was estimated at 16% from 2010-2020. In 2011, the BLS reported average annual salaries for accountants at just over $70,000.

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Featured Schools

Kaplan University

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George Mason University

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Johns Hopkins University

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Full Sail University

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  • B.S. - Music Business

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Northcentral University

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  • PhD in Business Admin - Advanced Accounting
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  • MBA - Financial Management

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Georgetown University

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  • Masters of Professional Studies in Technology Management

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  • Master of Business Administration: Taxation
  • Master of Science in Taxation

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