If you love balancing numbers and draw inspiration rather than fear from deadlines, you may enjoy a career in payroll accounting. Nonprofits, large corporations, small businesses, and even accounting firms rely on payroll accountants to ensure that employees are paid accurately and on time. Payroll accountants are also in demand across industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 6% job growth rate for accounting positions between 2018 and 2028 -- faster than the average rate for all occupations combined.

This guide offers a step-by-step look at how to become a payroll accountant, along with some valuable resources to help you get started.

What Skills Do You Need to Become a Payroll Accountant?

All payroll accountants must master certain core competencies to excel in their profession. While some of these competencies may come more naturally to some individuals than others, you can always acquire these skills through your studies and internships.

Detail-oriented skills

When it comes to paying employees, adding an extra zero or forgetting a decimal point can cause chaos. While payroll accounting software can help catch mistakes, accounting jobs require a strong eye for detail and accuracy.

Organizational skills

Employees expect to get paid on time, and failing to meet payroll deadlines can cause significant human resources issues. Payroll accountants must be able to complete and submit reports in a timely manner.

Math skills

Strong math skills are a must for prospective accountants. Payroll accountants work with numbers on a daily basis, using specialized software to perform large calculations.

Multi-tasking skills

Often, payroll accountants must work on multiple projects and adhere to several deadlines at once. Successful professionals are adept at managing their time and attention.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Payroll Accountant?

While all payroll accountants perform certain core duties, every professional's career path is slightly different. Personal obligations, finances, and educational goals can all influence the amount of time it takes to become a payroll accountant; however, most prospective accountants complete the four common steps described below.

  • Earn your bachelor's degree

    Most accountants begin their careers by earning a bachelor's degree from an accredited school and program. Along with institutional accreditation, keep an eye out for accounting programs that hold programmatic accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). While most learners complete their bachelor's degree in four years of full-time study, part-time students may require additional time to graduate.

  • Find an internship

    An internship provides hands-on training and allows students to apply classroom knowledge to real-life payroll accounting situations. Internships can also help candidates decide if they are on the right career path. While most internships offer college credit, some also provide income. Typically, internships last for one semester; however, some organizations request to extend internships or hire on interns after graduation.

  • Obtain a job

    Start applying for jobs during your final semester. Drafting a compelling cover letter, gathering recommendation letters, and designing a great resume can help you find a great job after graduation. Professors and professional contacts can also provide career assistance, and many professional organizations host exclusive, members-only job boards. Don't hesitate to reach out to organizations and accounting firms you admire and inquire about available positions.

  • Earn more credentials

    A payroll accountant's education doesn't end after graduation. A CPA license can help new professionals stand out from other job candidates and secure valuable career opportunities. Applicants must acquire 150 college credits and spend two years working full time in the field before sitting for the CPA exam. In addition, many professional organizations sponsor credentialing opportunities and continuing education programs.

What Education Do You Need to Become a Payroll Accountant?

The path to an accounting career begins with education. Most employers expect payroll accountants to hold a bachelor's degree in accounting, business, or another finance-related field. While curricula and course offerings vary between schools, any accredited bachelor's-level program presents fundamental accounting skills and concepts. Students also explore legal topics in payroll accounting, business statistics, debtor and creditor rights, and auditing. In addition, some programs include an internship component, which allows learners to gain on-the-job experience, new skills, and professional contacts.

Most employers expect payroll accountants to hold a bachelor's degree in accounting, business, or another finance-related field.

Prospective accountants may also benefit from pursuing a minor in business. Business courses provide insight into corporate operations and practices, allowing learners to understand and evaluate financial decisions in business settings. In addition, some companies prefer to hire individuals with the certified public accountant (CPA) credential. As graduation approaches, you may begin preparing to take the CPA examination.

It is important to consider your individual learning style, budget, and personal responsibilities as you explore accounting programs. Candidates who intend to work full time while completing a degree may prefer a part-time program that offers classes entirely online. Individuals who want to complete their studies quickly often thrive in accelerated, self-paced online programs, while those who learn best through face-to-face interaction might choose to earn a degree in a traditional classroom setting. Distance education also allows students to avoid many of the costs associated with on-campus learning, including transportation, housing, and facility fees.

Payroll Accountant Career Development and Credentials

While payroll accountants face a competitive job market, there are many ways to stand out from the crowd. Career development opportunities like continuing education, licensing, and certification programs can help you enhance your resume, gain new skills, and boost your marketability.

Certifications and Continuing Education

Industry certifications demonstrate dedication to your career. Some certifications tell potential employers that you are qualified to handle payroll for large companies or manage entire payroll teams. Certification opportunities can also help professionals secure specialized positions and gain career-specific skills. For example, payroll accountants who want to work with small businesses may pursue an entrepreneurship certification.

Most certification programs require candidates to complete a period of study, which may last anywhere from a few months to several years. Some are reserved for applicants who hold a certain amount of professional experience.

In addition, many professional organizations provide opportunities for members to bolster their resumes through continuing education. While continuing education programs vary considerably based on topic and specialization, most include webinars, lectures, reading materials, and assessments. Some confer certifications on program graduates. Online education also provides opportunities for professionals to connect with accountants around the country.

Credentials and Licensing

Some payroll accountants choose to enhance their career prospects and professional skills by pursuing additional certifications. Common choices include the certified payroll professional (CPP) and certified public accountant (CPA) credentials.

The American Payroll Association (APA) oversees the CPP licensing process. Generally, candidates must complete three years of experience working as payroll accountants before taking the licensing exam. The CPP Candidate Handbook provides further information on the licensing process.

Other professionals enhance their resumes by publishing essays and research papers. Many professional organizations that publish journals, blogs, and newsletters accept written contributions from members.

Learn More about Payroll Accounting and Take the Next Step Today

Career and Professional Resources

  • American Finance Association Founded in 1939, the AFA promotes collaboration between finance professionals, academics, and students. Members can read or submit articles to the association's renowned Journal of Finance, watch informative videos, or explore job openings.
  • The Professional Accounting Society of America This organization serves as an advocate for new and mid-level accounting professionals. Members can explore exclusive job boards, attend networking events, and take advantage of discounted products and services.
  • American Payroll Association The APA is a must-join organization for any payroll accounting professional. The association offers a members-only hotline service to address job-related questions, along with continuing education and certification programs.
  • National Society of Accountants Accountants from around the country flock to attend NSA's networking conferences, seminars, and educational events. NSA also provides free accounting and tax resources.
  • National Association of Enrolled Agents This organization limits membership to federally-licensed tax preparers who successfully complete an extensive examination. The three-part exam tests applicants' knowledge of individual tax returns, business tax returns, and representation.