01 June 2024

Qualifications or experience? The debate over which holds the most value punctuates recruitment and career development discussions across practically every industry. Here, Maria Mason MCIPPdip, partner, BDO UK LLP, explores how this ongoing debate unfolds specifically within the payroll industry

Payroll professionals have access to many industry-recognised, specialist qualifications and to high quality training. Over the last decade, we’ve seen a sharp rise in the profile of the payroll function and we’ve established clear career pathways, taking individuals from trainee level all the way through to positions in senior leadership. With these developments, the debate over experience versus education is becoming a growing consideration for the payroll function, influencing both hiring managers building teams and professionals looking to progress a lasting career in payroll.


There’s no substitute for experience

We know that practical knowledge gained on the job, through success and error, is a critical component of every payroll professional’s toolkit. Thereare many highly regarded payroll professionals who have advanced outstanding careers without undertaking payroll-specific qualifications.

Experience is pivotal in:

  • honing problem solving and decision-making skills
  • developing technical expertise
  • providing exposure to systems and tools which are pivotal in delivering accurate, timely payroll.

For individuals working as part of an in-house team, experience in-post provides an opportunity to grow a strong understanding of the business’s strategy and objectives, and how payroll supports this. For those working in a bureau environment, experience can provide an opportunity to develop important skillsets outside of payroll processing, such as:

  • account management
  • client relationship management
  • project management
  • advisory provision
  • technology selection
  • implementation.

Naturally, there are limits to how far experience can take us. The size and nature of the businesses we operate in directly influences the size and scope of the payrolls we’re exposed to and our opportunities to work on more varied and complex elements of payroll processing, such as Bacs, pensions and reporting to HM Revenue and Customs. Additionally, the size and structure of an organisation has an impact on the career development and progression opportunities available to us.

Nevertheless, exposure to the varied and complex elements of payroll delivery will always be an invaluable and indispensable part of building a career in payroll, and there’s certainly no substitute.


The business landscape is shifting

Many organisations are turning their attention towards addressing a plethora of business challenges – some well-established, others new and emerging. Environmental, societal and governance (ESG) factors and sustainability, workforce resilience, digital transformation and evolving risk considerations all impact the way businesses operate and how they’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As the custodians of a wealth of people and pay data points, payroll professionals have a unique opportunity to shape business thinking and influence decision making across many of these challenges.

People, hours and pay data can be leveraged to aid the business in addressing recruitment and employee experience challenges. Joined up pay, human resource and workforce management solutions can support businesses in their journey toward digital transformation, enabling real-time data collection, insight generation and decision making. Gender pay gap reporting and equality / diversity insights, generated through payroll data analysis, have an important role to play in monitoring governance and meeting ESG obligations set by government.

More so than ever before, payroll professionals have the attention of the business and an opportunity to guide organisations as they navigate today’s (and tomorrow’s) challenges.


The payroll profession is developing

Concurrent with this shift, we’re also seeing transformation in the way the payroll function is perceived. The opportunities and depth of development available to payroll professionals in both bureau and in-house environments is growing.

The profile of the payroll profession has risen sharply since 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic, when payroll teams were deemed to be key workers, pivotal in keeping businesses (and the economy) running. Now, early-in-career professionals, entering the industry at payroll trainee level, are presented with established progression pathways leading into influential senior business positions such as payroll director and even payroll partner.

At the same time, there’s a much broader range of specialisms available to aspiring payroll professionals. Individuals looking to further their career can specialise in payroll legislation, data analytics, technology implementation and innovation, systems and solutions consultation, account management and business development.


Let’s develop with it

The evolution and elevation of the payroll profession, and the shift in the way businesses operate, naturally puts pressure on payroll professionals to maintain their skills and knowledge and remain at the cutting edge of developments. Access to payroll-specific qualifications is, therefore, more important than ever and many entry-level and specialist qualifications have already been developed and introduced to the market.

The CIPP’s Payroll Technician Certificate (PTC) offers early-in-career professionals an excellent grounding in payroll delivery, covering the full breadth of calculations, contributions and compliance considerations encountered by payroll trainees and technicians in the workplace.

For individuals looking to develop their career further, many specialist qualifications are also available. These cover a wide range of payroll and non-payroll-specific fields. Professionals looking to develop wider transferrable skills across project and transformation management could consider undertaking a PRINCE2 qualification. Equally, there are a wide range of programmes available to support new and established people managers and team leaders in people, client or process management, business development and technology / innovation.

Holding a qualification also carries wider employability benefits for the individual. Undertaking further education is widely seen as an indicator that an individual is driven, self-motivated and dedicated to furthering their career. Additionally, advanced qualifications, such as the CIPP Payroll Specialist Certificate and the CIPP Foundation Degree in Payroll Management, elevate an individual’s prospects even further, demonstrating their capability to be a trusted partner and valuable asset for the business.

Of course, there are challenges and limitations inherent in undertaking further education, not least the considerable time investment needed to complete a qualification, which ranges from several weeks to several years. As an industry, it’s important we support aspiring payroll professionals to undertake their education while also juggling home, family and worklife.

With such a degree of change and progress, payroll professionals need to take advantage of all the tools at our disposal. For many, this means blending the practical experience and skills gained on the job with payroll-specific knowledge developed through qualifications and education to maximise potential and ensure you have an all-rounded skillset to gain those senior positions. Here are some tips for growing your payroll career:


Consider your career goals

Planning your career in payroll is a vital step in evaluating whether education is the right route for you, and what kind of qualifications to pursue. Qualifications like the PTC are excellent for early-career professionals looking to progress, while the CIPP Foundation Degree can be advantageous for those looking to develop their careers to more senior positions.


Understand the business

Understanding the business’s strategic goals and challenges can help you identify opportunities to progress your career in payroll and recognise where you can add value – there are plenty of qualifications to help you specialise.


Challenge yourself

Undertaking qualifications can be a boon when progressing your career, but so can stepping out of your comfort zone in your role. Maximising your exposure to different aspects of the payroll function, new areas of the business and a broad range of business stakeholders can really help when developing your knowledge and skills.


Know your limits

Balancing work, home, family and education can be a daunting task. Consider whether you have the time to invest and, most importantly, consult your employer to learn about the support available to help you succeed. 


This article feautured in the June 2024 issue of Professional.