Become a Payroll Specialist – Careers and Outlook

If you are thinking of becoming a payroll specialist, you may not even need to go to college - although having an associate degree, along with the required skills, is likely to help you land the position you want. At a minimum, you will need a high school diploma or a general equivalency diploma (GED) certificate to work as a payroll professional. It’s easier to find positions available with this level of schooling among smaller businesses. If you wish to work full-time, at a large company, and hope to have access to benefits, you will need more education.

Some employers want their payroll specialists to hold a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field, along with payroll experience. You should have the following courses or similar on your transcript: computer accounting, bookkeeping, computer payroll time reporting/processing, and benefits deduction. One way to work yourself into this position is to be promoted from a position as payroll clerk.

What is a Payroll Specialist?


As a payroll specialist, you would work with the payroll data that applies to every employee and manager in your company. You’ll keep track of employee attendance and may verify which employees were at work or not. Using financial records, you’ll make adjustments to their pay and calculate their benefit allocations, along with payroll deductions.

What Does a Payroll Specialist Do?


The payroll specialist is responsible for processing their employer’s payroll and keeping tax information for the company current; in short, they perform payroll management duties. These employees may also conduct some training on timekeeping software for new employees if they use special software for tracking their hours or requesting sick days. These professionals should expect to work in the human resource office of a small or large business. Some work for firms that provide freelance services for client companies.

You may be responsible for entering both time and attendance into specialized timekeeping software, then transferring those hours into payroll software. It’s vital to have good problem-solving skills so you can detect errors that may develop with technology, or human errors from employees and managers. You’ll be expected to fix these mistakes so that everyone is paid correctly.

You should have good communication skills, math, and organizational skills. You may refine these skills in high school, community college, or at a university.

You may have plans to advance in your role, making either payroll or human resources your career. For this to happen, you may need to return to school to earn a higher-level degree, such as a master’s degree in human resource management. Earning certifications such as the Certified Human Resource Management certificate from the American Payroll Association can also help you in this endeavor.

Steps to Become a Payroll Specialist:


  • Step 1: Enroll in and Take a Degree or Certificate Program

  • Step 2: Start the Job Search Process

  • Step 3: Accept the Job Offer You Want

  • Step 4: Continuing Education

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Step 1: Enroll in and Take a Degree or Certificate Program

You might first enroll in a community or technical college where you’ll earn either an associate degree or a training certificate that prepares you to work as an accounting and/or payroll specialist. This certificate program teaches you how to accurately handle the everyday transactions of your employer including the tracking of inventory, sales, and bill payments.

This program gives you the training you need to begin at an entry-level in an accounting or human resources departments, where you’ll handle accounting and/or payroll duties. Courses you might take include business math, accounting essentials, payroll preparation essentials, QuickBooks, introduction to Excel, organizing computer files, etc.

When you receive your certificate, you will be prepared to work as a bookkeeper or in a payroll specialist position.

Step 2: Start the Job Search Process

Once you have some education, you can begin applying for jobs as a payroll specialist. In job ads, you’ll often see an education requirement listed in the ‘Qualifications’ section of the ad. As an example, job applicants may be required to hold a high school diploma or a General Education Diploma (GED).

You may see that you could also have a specific amount of time working in this clerical role in order to be eligible for these positions. Many positions require education or experience or both. In any clerical position you held in the past, you should be able to prove that you spent a considerable amount of time on math and similar tasks in order to show that you have comparable experience, and you can do the tasks required of you. Providing a reference to a previous supervisor may also help you to convince a recruiter that you have the experience necessary.

Step 3: Accept the Job Offer You Want

After you interview for a position as a payroll specialist, you may be asked to attend a second interview before you receive a job offer.

You can contact the hiring manager or recruiter to check on the status of your resume within the first week of your interview; they will not be surprised at this call, but it will help to keep you in their minds. If they choose to offer you a position, you may be contacted by phone or via email. If you receive a phone call, request that the hiring manager email you the job offer so you can go through it thoroughly. Acknowledge it with “Thank you for the offer! I would like to read through it and consider your offer before making my decision. Is there a deadline by which you need my decision?”

As you read the offer, you should be able to decide easily if it’s right for you. Does it have everything you are looking for, or should you begin negotiations on salary and benefits? If the entire offer makes you happy, skip the questions and respond in writing with your acceptance.

Step 4: Continuing Education

Once you receive your first certification and begin working as a payroll specialist, your days of professional education are not over. In order to hold onto your position and receive promotions, you need to continue seeking out and taking related certification courses. The Certified Payroll Specialist (CPS) program is intended for payroll specialists who don’t already have either an associate or a bachelor’s degree in accounting. They may choose to become certified rather than going to school.

This certification is set up to be self-study and is self-paced so that you can begin at any time and work at a pace that is comfortable for you. You and other test takers will complete your exams for certification.

The program does cost you some money—as of 2021, the non-member fee was $1,497 and the member fee was $1,197. This is much less than you would pay in tuition for an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Skills to Acquire


  • Processing payroll
  • Maintaining personnel databases
  • Managing budget expenses
  • Understanding tax law, wage and hour laws, union contracts
  • Understanding how common fiscal procedures are used
  • Being familiar with budget operations
  • Being a skilled multitasker
  • Managing time well
  • Working directly with clients
  • Resolving employee complaints
  • Having excellent computer skills
  • Working well with online data programs and payroll processing software
  • Understanding and working well with Microsoft Office applications
  • Being prepared to work on and produce reports
  • Providing accurate data to management
  • Being skilled with clerical skills: data entry, files maintenance, ensure accuracy in reports, prepare male to go out, work on contract issues respond to emails and answer phone calls from employees and clients
  • Maintaining employee confidentiality in preparing payroll and distributing confidential materials
  • Knowing how to calculate numbers
  • Knowing how to maintain vital records
  • Inputting data accurately from production records, time cards or time sheets
  • Balancing payroll runs
  • Producing local, state, and federal tax payments
  • Answering employees’ questions and troubleshoot any payroll problems
  • Submit work to your supervisor in a timely manner
  • Being able to work in an indoor, office environment
  • Being able to take certification courses as recommended by supervisor

Alternative paths


You may not be able to go to a state university or community college to earn an associate degree in accounting payroll. That’s fine. Holding a degree from a community college or university isn’t a hard and fast requirement. In addition, if you don’t have experience with entering payroll, that may not necessarily stop you from landing a job as a payroll specialist.

The minimum requirement is a GED or high school diploma, and you can be given on-the-job training as a new hire. In short, if you have some administrative, bookkeeping, or human resources experience and a diploma or GED, you should easily be able to land the job you want.

Another way to land a payroll specialist position is to obtain certification through the National Association of Certified Public Bookkeepers (NACPB) and then take the certification exam. You’ll be able to complete the course, start your job, and get all the payroll training you need because you’ll start out as a payroll clerk. Once you have some experience behind you, then you’ll be promoted to a payroll specialist position, where you may help with payroll administration.

Once you’re in the door and working as a payroll clerk, sign up for the Certified Payroll Specialist certification course to earn additional payroll knowledge. You’ll have that handy for the time that a payroll specialist position opens up.

Payroll Specialist Careers & Salary


Where Might You Work?


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As a payroll specialist, you’ll work in an office that’s usually located within the human resources department. You may work in any large or small company, though only larger companies tend to have robust human resources and payroll departments. In smaller companies, they are often combined into one. You could also work in a government agency, processing payroll and carrying out other payroll-related tasks.

In any setting, you need to be able to communicate well and troubleshoot problems with payroll as you enter it into the computer. You’re also expected to have math skills so you can enter accurate numbers and complete calculations correctly - be sure to hone your payroll practices so your work is accurate. Being organized is a major plus in any type of organization as you won’t have to go searching through reams of documents, time cards, or other paperwork to find something your supervisor needs.

Career Outlook


The mean hourly wage for payroll specialists is $22.79 as of 2020. Beginning payroll specialists earn an average of $14.58 per hour. Their mid-career salaries are closer to $22.70, and their late-career wage is $31.83.

Payroll accountants are employed by many, if not nearly all, companies and enterprises, with a percentage of industry employment at 1.35%. Payroll specialists and certified payroll professionals can expect to see their employment increase by as much as 8% between 2019 and 2029. This is a much faster rate of growth than the average for all other occupations.

Companies are going to continue to hire compensation and payroll specialists who are able to analyze the benefits policies they need to use, select the one best suited to their organization, and make updates to these policies. Payroll specialists may also become involved in creating competitive compensation packages so that companies can attract the most-highly qualified workers.

Find Payroll Specialist Jobs Near You


By now, you should have an idea of what a payroll specialist does every day. A brief review tells you that, in this position, you compile data on the hours each employee has worked for the pay period and you determine the correct amount to pay, factoring in overtime, bonuses, and deductions.

When you read through a job ad for a payroll specialist, you’ll read a wealth of information about the position, qualifications, and requirements. This tells you what future employers want you to know how to do and what your daily responsibilities will be, should you receive a job offer. Here are some positions and the qualifications expected.

Staff Accountant/Payroll Specialist:
Applicants must be detail-oriented and experienced in accounting functions. Candidate should show they have worked as a professional accountant for at least three years, with experience in a mid-size firm, preferably a non-profit.

Payroll Administrator/Specialist:
This on-site position requires that the payroll specialist has experience with several payroll systems (Paychex, ADP, and others – these will vary depending on who’s doing the hiring). They must also be an expert at working on Excel with Pivot tables and V Look-up skills.

Payroll Specialist:
The successful candidate for this position should have the following qualifications: One year of Microsoft Excel (Preferred) and one year of payroll experience (Required). They should have strong core math skills, excellent keyboarding skills, both oral and written English skills and communication skills described as “friendly”.
This employee ensures that payroll syncs accurately. They troubleshoot payroll set up problems and make sure that 1st contribution payroll runs correctly. As certified payroll professionals, you and your team should have these skills and more.

Senior Payroll Specialist:
Some smaller boutique accounting firm provide tax and consulting services to businesses and clients who have a high net worth. The payroll specialist will process payroll and payroll reports for more than 200 clients. These reports are required monthly, quarterly, and annually. You will need to have experience leading a team in order to work in this type of situation.

Payroll Clerk:
Employee will assist with payroll processing every two weeks; review electronic time sheets every week and help with importing them from the timekeeping system to the accounting system for payroll.

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Advancing from Here


After you have been a payroll specialist for a few years, you may want to take steps to be promoted to a senior payroll specialist position. You will need to have the same type of skills for this role so you can carry out your responsibilities - math, organization, and communication skills – along with plenty of experience and the proven ability to lead people.

If you don’t have it yet, you should consider earning a bachelor’s degree, although most senior payroll specialists now have master’s degrees. It is possible to become a senior payroll specialist by holding a high school diploma, but it wouldn’t be easy.

When you reach the top of the organizational chart, you will be a payroll supervisor or administrator.

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