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How to Become a Payroll Administrator
Payroll administrators fulfil a demanding role at the heart of their companies - but what does it take to build a successful career in the field?
Payroll is an essential part of business. The success of a payroll department is built on, and reflected in, the capabilities of its staff. But succeeding as a payroll administrator, and forging a career in this area, involves more than just delivering pay and deducting taxes.
If you're thinking about becoming a payroll administrator, understanding how to approach the field is an important first step on your journey.
Prospective payroll administrators should be able to handle the basics of their role, which is as much about personality as it is talent.
Numeracy and literacy skills: Payroll staff are more than simple number-crunchers. While numerical proficiency is important, administrators face a wide variety of professional challenges and must perform numerous technical duties in addition to tax and salary calculations. Literacy is equally important: administrators must communicate to colleagues and entire departments, or address boardroom staff.
Organised, logical, methodical approaches: Payroll administrators may have to deal with multiple tasks and duties at any given time. An organised, logical approach to their work is essential. Standard, day-to-day duties of a payroll administrator include:
- Recording employee work hours
- Calculating pay and taxes, based on work-hour data
- Incorporating variables, like overtime, sick pay, holidays and expenses, into pay
- Processing and paying salaries and wages - by cash, cheque or transfer
- Issuing payslips to employees
- Addressing problems and answering queries
- Issuing P45s and other administrative tasks
Flexibility: Beyond the job description, payroll administrators work as part of a team, and should be flexible, creative thinkers in order to address unexpected problems quickly and effectively.
Remaining Calm Under Pressure: Since the payroll process can be stressful - and involve strict compliance requirements - administrators must be able to work under pressure, without compromising performance standards.
Good timekeeping and ability to meet strict deadlines: The essence of payroll is delivering salaries and wages to employees on time. In practice, this means being able to prioritise and delegate to ensure the workload is completed on time.
A keen eye for detail and accuracy: Calculating pay and reporting taxes is a complicated process. With legislative requirements affecting almost all aspects of the role, administrators need to be able to carry out their duties with confidence and accuracy.
Beginning Your Career
Prospective entry-level administrators, and even established professionals, may give themselves an advantage when applying for payroll jobs:
Payroll administrators are drawn from a variety of educational backgrounds, however. university-level qualifications are a huge advantage. Most employers will seek prospective payroll administrators with degrees in:
- Business Studies/Management
- Information Technology
- Human Resources
While these subjects represent knowledge relevant to payroll administration, they are by no means a definitive list.
Ultimately, employers are looking for graduates with the pedigree to handle the challenges of payroll effectively; characteristics which can be developed in a range of educational fields.
Payroll has become a digital discipline, incorporating a spectrum of innovative technology. Digital tax accounts now integrate with PAYE systems to open up a range of novel options and approaches for payroll administrators. The day-to-day operations of payroll processing have also been transformed: most tasks now integrate numerous software platforms, including office staples such as the Microsoft or Google toolkits, and specialised payroll processing software, like Sage 50, Xero and Quickbooks.
Prospective administrators should prepare themselves for a digital workplace, and the new skills they may need to develop to adapt and succeed within it.
Training & Accreditation
While educational qualifications may factor into a recruiter's decision, prospective administrators may boost their chances of success by gaining industry-accredited payroll training. Internationally-recognised payroll organisations offer training courses for individuals and business-groups, including the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals in the UK.
While many professional accreditations are designed for established professionals, there are plenty of opportunities for prospective administrators to train in entry-level skills. The CIPP's list of training courses, for example, covers a variety of experience levels - from early-career competencies, to professional development for experienced payroll staff - and includes:
- Certificate in Payroll Practice
- National Payroll Certificates (3 levels)
- Certificate in Pensions Administration
- Certificate in Managing Global Payroll
- Professional Development Award in Team Management
While the CIPP operates in the UK, other internationally-recognised bodies include the American Payroll Association (APA), the Canadian Payroll Association (CPA) and the Australian Payroll Association. Each organisation serves payroll administrators with support, training courses and opportunities for professional development.
While many larger businesses serve their employees with integrated payroll departments, small-to-medium size businesses may not have the logistical capacity, or expertise, to process pay in-house. In these instances, outsourcing represents a way for businesses to deliver a high standard of payroll performance to their staff, while taking advantage of specialised expertise.
Outsourcing is a common strategy amongst multinational or expatriate businesses. Setting up in a foreign country comes with numerous new legal and compliance issues - making it much simpler to outsource vital operational departments, like HR and payroll. Anyone beginning a career in payroll administration may find opportunities with dedicated outsourcing organisations - and may stand out from the crowd by offering a level of international expertise, or language proficiency, in their target market.
Opportunities in payroll are not just for entry-level employees. The skills and talents that are important to payroll intersect with several professional fields, including accountancy, IT and human resources - meaning transition into payroll administration from another role is popular career option.
Making the jump into payroll from other professional contexts is easier for employees who can apply their existing skills creatively: not just as administrators, but as technicians, supervisors, managers, customer service specialists and more. Any experience gained as part of a payroll (or payroll-adjacent) department opens up opportunities in senior administrative roles, and broadens career possibilities in the longer term.
A creative approach
Ultimately, payroll is a multi-faceted and constantly evolving field, which promises rewarding careers for employees prepared to embrace the possibilities of their role. Given the variety of positions available in payroll, even early-career administrators should think about the professional journey they wish to embark upon, and seize the available opportunities that emerge across the payroll landscape.
About the Author
Sandra Summerville is the Group Human Resources Manager at activpayroll with 18 years’ experience in human resources and senior food retail operational management. Her role at activpayroll is key in driving business growth and change, growing talent through training and development, encouraging, recognizing and mentoring people to reach their full potential.