01 June 2024

There are two main paths into the payroll profession – one with a foundation of experience and the other leading from education. So, what are the relative merits of each route, and to what extent should the paths be merged? To find out, Jerome Smail, freelance journalist, asked the industry experts…

This issue, Jerome spoke to:

Emily Cocking ACIPP, payroll manager, Streets Steele

Paul Hammond MCIPPdip, director, national payroll / business services and outsourcing, BDO

Helen Livesey, senior business director, Hays

Emma Watson MCIPPdip, payroll and human resources (HR) manager, Payroll Pal.


In your view, how does the hiring process balance the needs of payroll regarding the potential of employees with experience, against those with theoretical skills based on education?

Emily Cocking: I opened this question out to my managers, Ben Steele and Ryan Saward, the directors of Streets Steele, and they explained what they were looking for when recruiting for my role (payroll manager) and other payroll roles in the business. Ben stated that he feels experience overpowers education as a general rule for payroll roles as there isn’t capacity to teach an employee how to deal with the day-to-day business responsibilities. He would put experience over education when recruiting for a payroll role but this changed for my role as payroll manager.

Ben and Ryan felt both were essential for my job as it’s a senior and complex role and they wanted to ensure the employee had experience in payroll processing but also had technical skills and qualifications which could help them fill the role as manager, deal with payroll queries and help the team.

Paul Hammond: It’s about striking the right balance and recognising the unique combination of a candidate’s experiences, skills and educational background. That’s how you find the perfect match for the role and ensure both the individual and the organisation thrive. A candidate might have a string of qualifications and a wealth of knowledge but find themselves out of their depth in the fast-paced environment of a payroll bureau. At the same time, qualifications can be a game-changer, acting as a differentiator among candidates with similar experience levels. It’s a sign of their dedication to learning and self-improvement.

Helen Livesey: Employers typically look for how much experience an applicant has under their belt when scanning CVs. However, across most organisations today, the hiring process is centred around the skills an applicant can bring to the table. Whether their skills were obtained through hands-on experience or by achieving qualifications through education, employers are interested in hearing how these skills are transferable to help facilitate success in the role in question.

According to our 2024 Salary and Recruiting Trends Guide, employers are increasingly turning to skills-based hiring to attract a range of professionals from different backgrounds; more than half (54%) of accountancy employers believe it’s not important for a job applicant to have a degree, followed by 38% who say a degree is quite important, but not an essential requirement. Although academic achievements and work experience undoubtedly help to equip payroll professionals with a valuable skillset to take forward throughout their career, an aptitude and willingness to learn is thought to be of greater importance than existing skills by over three-quarters (77%) of finance employers. Therefore, jobseekers ought to emphasise their enthusiasm to put in the work necessary to progress.

Most (78%) accountancy employers say they’re likely to hire a professional who doesn’t possess all the required skills, with the intention of upskilling them, which is an effective way to attract a diverse talent pool, create opportunities and bridge the skills gap.

Emma Watson: Take the payroll role back 20 years – there were limited payroll qualifications available. Therefore, hiring for the job was based on previous work experience. Even though payroll qualifications are now becoming increasingly popular and more readily available, speaking from experience, when advertising for payroll juniors, job applicants have been school leavers with no payroll background or experience. Therefore, applications have been based on school grades, previous work experience and answers to interview questions. It’s positive to see so many school leavers wanting to take an apprenticeship route into payroll, as this is something which was unheard of only a few years ago.


Are there any emerging trends within the payroll industry which are influencing a preference for either education or experience for those entering the profession?

EC: Ben suggested that artificial intelligence (AI) and a lack of payroll professionals in the industry are influencing preferences when recruiting. AI has resulted in less manual work for basic tasks, which means fewer junior employees are needed. There’s also still a lack of payroll professionals available to hire, which can remove the demand for qualifications and employers may accept a candidate who only has experience,
or they may need to be less strict with their requirements.

PH: The payroll industry is undergoing a significant transformation, emerging as a distinct and critical function within the organisation, rather than sitting under HR or finance. For professionals entering the field, this change is influencing the dynamics of education versus experience. As payroll becomes a standalone function, there’s a growing emphasis on formal qualifications and professional memberships, particularly for those aiming for senior roles. The trend is towards recognising payroll not just as a process-oriented task but as a strategic function capable of driving business insights through data analysis. This shift is elevating the importance of being qualified and affiliated with Chartered professional bodies.

The conversation within large organisations now includes the potential for roles such as a chief payroll officer occupying a seat at the C-suite table. For such high-level positions, qualifications from professional bodies will no doubt become a prerequisite. Given these industry trends, it’s advantageous for individuals to pursue relevant qualifications early in their careers. Those looking to enter the profession should be well-informed about the qualifications available and consider them as part of their career planning.

Employers are increasingly expecting to see these credentials during the hiring process, as they signal a candidate’s commitment to the profession and readiness to contribute to the payroll function’s evolving role in business strategy.

HL: Although employers prioritise experience and skills over education in today’s market, if you’re in a managerial role, a CIPP qualification to cement your payroll experience is well thought of and will give you the upper hand when competing against other applicants.

EW: An increasing number of payroll job roles now require payroll qualifications to support the application. These qualifications can be the deciding factor in gaining the job, making you stand out from the crowd, compared to having experience alone. Trends tend to be a payroll-related qualification with a required amount of experience. There are now many career paths within payroll and having a payroll qualification will help those entering the profession to get the jobs they apply for.


How can individuals leverage a combination of education and experience to enhance their competitiveness in the job market for payroll roles?

EC: Personally, I have found enhanced competitiveness through the additional things I do in the industry – networking and outside work events. This provided opportunities which helped me when searching for my current role and I would recommend putting yourself out there and getting involved.

Studying for the payroll apprenticeship is a good way to gain a combination of education (the technical side of payroll and legislation) and experience through working day-to-day, payroll processing and working within a team. This is the route I took, and I definitely feel it was the right one for me.

PH: While hands-on experience in payroll roles is undeniably valuable for climbing the career ladder, education and formal qualifications should be given equal importance. Alongside industry-specific qualifications from bodies like the CIPP, individuals should also consider certifications relevant to their desired career trajectory within payroll.

It’s crucial for individuals to map out a career path within the payroll industry and identify the mix of experience and qualifications which will best position them to achieve their goals. This way, they can tailor their professional development to meet the demands of the evolving payroll landscape, enhancing their appeal to potential employers and their prospects for advancement.

HL: Although a combination of experience and education is ideal, it’s important to always emphasise the skills you’ve acquired along the way, regardless of your career journey so far, to tap into the era of skills-based hiring.

EW: Gaining a recognised payroll qualification will enhance individuals’ portfolios and increase the chances of successful job applications. Reading HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) guides can help to gain a deeper understanding of the payroll process. Downloading software such as HMRC’s Basic Payroll Tools and becoming familiar with different payroll functions would also help increase background knowledge. Watching HMRC’s free webinars on areas such as national minimum wage, statutory sick pay and statutory maternity pay are also good starting points to gain knowledge and experience. Becoming a member of the CIPP and reading Professional magazine would also help the individual gain

up-to-date knowledge in the payroll world. Gaining information technology (IT) and data protection knowledge and skills is also key to the role. Free online courses can be found to assist with broadening knowledge. All these added extras are perfect to help build upon a CV and make the individual stand out from the crowd.

I came into my role with no previous experience or payroll qualifications. I began by completing online Microsoft courses to update my IT skills and I watched HMRC videos on YouTube in relation to tax codes and pay as you earn.


Is there an ideal combination when it comes to qualifications and experience?

EC: I think it’s ideal to have both qualifications and experience as they both have positive impacts on your career and future opportunities. In my opinion, they go hand in hand, and you will be at your strongest with both – qualifications are good for knowledge and technicality, but I feel you really pick things up when you come across them in the workplace. Having experience alone could potentially prevent you from being selected for a future role and may mean you miss certain technical elements you would learn when gaining a qualification. However, these are skills you can develop so I feel unless it’s a trainee role, experience is always going to hold importance.

PH: When it comes to the ideal mix of qualifications and experience in the payroll industry, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Roles within the field are becoming more diverse, and the environment in which payroll professionals operate can greatly influence what works best. It’s essential for employers to foster an environment where individuals can flourish. This means payroll leaders have a responsibility to provide newcomers with opportunities to explore different aspects of the industry and support them in pursuing relevant qualifications. At BDO, we provide individuals with financial support by sponsoring their studies, and we ensure they have the time, flexibility and resources they need to succeed.

At the same time, candidates must take the initiative to seek out experiences and dedicate the necessary time and effort to their education. This proactive approach is key to unlocking potential and advancing to more senior positions within the payroll sector, should that be your ambition.

HL: There are positive takeaways to be gained from both educational and professional experience, where a person thrives most will depend on their individual learning styles and preferences.

EW: Ideally, I believe anyone working in a payroll environment should have studied, or be working towards, the CIPP’s Level 3 Payroll Technician Certificate (PTC) as a minimum. This qualification provides a deeper understanding of the payroll function and allows individuals to gain experience carrying out manual calculations, which is a skill required to work successfully in a payroll role.

Overall, I believe it depends on the individual. Some individuals learn better on the job, whereas others learn more from reading and carrying out research. Gaining the PTC along with on-the-job experience would allow the skills needed to work within a payroll department to be gained, creating the perfect combination. 


This article feautured in the June 2024 issue of Professional.