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Payroll Specialist Career


What Is a Payroll Specialist?


A payroll specialist, sometimes called a payroll clerk, is in charge of the crucial work of paying all of a company’s employees correctly and on time. A payroll specialist is typically part of the finance team, though it is not uncommon for them to have a background in human resources or to work cross-departmentally. 

Financial training is often required, as a payroll specialist is responsible for processing all payroll information, including making adjustments, allocating benefits, and preparing tax information. Despite the automation of some tasks, payroll specialists will still find themselves in demand. 


What Does a Payroll Specialist Do?

Payroll specialist duties can vary based on the industry, the scale of the company they work for, and the size of the team they report to. Most payroll specialist job descriptions list calculating wages, collecting employee data, preparing paychecks, and processing employee payments as common duties. Payroll specialists are often responsible for all payroll-related tasks. It’s important that you are comfortable being autonomous and enjoy seeing a process through from start to finish. 

While the day-to-day can vary, the payroll system is cyclical so there is repetition and structure in daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. 

  • Payroll management. Depending on your organization's pay structure, you will likely begin payroll tasks at the beginning of the week, audit them midweek, and finalize them towards the end of the week. If a new hire onboards late in the week, or if someone misses the payroll submission deadline, you will need to allow for flexibility in your schedule for last-minute auditing and processing. 
  • Garnishment processing. Wage garnishment occurs when a portion of a person’s earnings are required by a court order to be withheld by their employer. This is often for the payment of a debt, such as child support. It is the responsibility of the payroll specialist to process and track all garnishments correctly.
  • Employee communication. Payroll specialists are responsible for answering employee questions via email, phone, or in person. Sometimes an hourly employee may forget to submit their working hours, resulting in a smaller or missing paycheck. Payroll specialists support employees in the event of these mistakes by processing a "mini payroll" meaning the employee won’t have to wait until the next pay cycle to be paid.
  • Taxes and W2s. Quarterly and annual financial tasks are vital parts of a payroll specialist’s role. Tax season is often a busy time for payroll specialists. They process and submit state and federal taxes for each employee, and must provide an annual W2 for each employee. 

Do I Need a Certification for This Position?

Payroll specialist certifications can vary by state and employers often look for credentials like the American Payroll Association’s Certified Payroll Professional

Opportunities for advancement come from understanding your organization's specific needs. Payroll specialists often find themselves cross-trained and well suited for other types of financial positions like billing and posting clerks, new account clerks, procurement clerks, benefits managers, compensations analysts, and more. 


How Do I Become a Payroll Specialist?

In order to become a payroll specialist you will likely need a bachelor's degree. The best degrees for those pursuing a career as a payroll specialist are a bachelor of science in accounting, bachelor of science in finance or a bachelor of science in human resource management. These types of bachelor degree programs will give you important skills in finance and employee management that can help you prepare for payroll positions and their requirements. While it may not be required, a bachelor's degree will absolutely set you apart and give you enhanced skills to succeed in this position.

Where Does a Payroll Specialist work?

Almost all industries and companies require a payroll specialist or clerk on staff. The largest employers of payroll clerks in 2019 were insurance carriers, healthcare, social assistance companies, and credit intermediation groups.

Best Degrees for a  Payroll Specialist

Accounting – B.S. Business Administration

Have a knack for numbers or fine-tuning finances?...

Have a knack for numbers or fine-tuning finances?

  • Time: 70% of graduates finish within 42 months.
  • Tuition: $3,755 per 6-month term.
  • Courses: 41 courses in this program.

Some careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • Accounting manager
  • Financial director
  • Vice president of finance and operations
  • Chief financial officer
  • Forensic accountant

Take your first step toward CPA certification and learn how to use GAAP, ledgers, and journals.

Finance – B.S.

This online finance program is career-focused so you will gain relevant...

This online finance program is career-focused so you will gain relevant industry skills.

  • Time: 70% of graduates finish similar programs within 42 months.
  • Tuition: $3,575 per 6-month term.
  • Courses: 41 courses in this program.

Some careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • Financial analyst
  • Finance director 
  • Investment banker
  • Insurance agent
  • Accountant

The competency-based model at WGU allows you to move as quickly as you can master the material, and do your coursework on your schedule. Flexibility is key with the B.S. in finance at WGU.

Human Resource Management – B.S. Business Administration

A SHRM-recognized online business degree program:...

A SHRM-recognized online business degree program:

  • Time: 72% of graduates finish within 43 months.
  • Tuition: $3,755 per 6-month term.
  • Courses: 41 total courses in this program.

Sample careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:

  • Human resource specialist
  • Director of talent acquisition
  • Recruiting manager
  • Organizational learning specialist
  • Vice president of HR

Earn your B.S. in Human Resources and help build strong organizations.

How Much Does a Payroll Specialist Make?


Payroll specialists, on average, made $47,020 per year in May 2022, according to the BLS. This ranks higher than similar clerking jobs in the field, such as procurement clerks, loan clerks, and new account clerks. Payroll clerks rank just behind brokerage clerks in the ranking of all financial clerks. Most payroll specialists work full time in their roles. 

What Is the Job Outlook for a Payroll Specialist?


Human resource roles are projected to grow 7%, which is faster than the national average for all occupations, according to the BLS. For payroll specialists that growth is closer to 6%, a slight reduction due to some tasks that are now able to be automated via the use of software.


What Skills Does a Payroll Specialist Need?

Payroll specialists differ from other finance positions in that they have a lot of interaction with employees. Sometimes an interaction may be difficult due to an employee's stress or fear about money.

Payroll specialists must understand the responsibility of their work hugely impacting a person’s financial life. If something goes wrong, it could mean the difference in that employee being able to pay their rent, daycare, or grocery bill. 

If you are interested in pursuing a payroll specialist position, it is beneficial to have a balance of hard and soft skills. Typical skills include: 

  • Strict attention to detail 
  • Effective communication
  • Respect for compliance and confidentiality
  • Technical knowledge of programs and software
  • Willingness to learn new software platforms
  • Ability to make quick, correct calculations
  • Strong organizational skills
  • Communicative and clear with coworkers

Our Online University Degree Programs Start on the First of Every Month, All Year Long

No need to wait for spring or fall semester. It's back-to-school time at WGU year-round. Get started by talking to an Enrollment Counselor today, and you'll be on your way to realizing your dream of a bachelor's or master's degree—sooner than you might think!

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Interested in Becoming a Payroll Specialist?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.