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How important are payroll certifications?

Two experts debate whether payroll certifications are necessary or whether on-the-job training is equally effective.

“Learning on the job fosters better skills than certifications alone.”

Mark van Bijsterveld

Certifications can certainly be helpful in creating a standard for hiring, but I find that leaning on them too heavily can be misleading. 

Let’s think about why companies want certifications in the first place. They promise a certain level of quality in your workforce and confirm that employees understand the rules and obligations that you have in payroll. But it’s not the only way to go about that. Certifications alone can fail to provide an accurate reflection of an employee’s skill and potential. 

Payroll is so much more than just understanding the process. How does someone run a project? How does someone participate in teams? How are they able to look beyond their own role? Certifications don’t reflect that. And while the skills and knowledge of your individual payroll professionals are important, the design of your overall payroll architecture and payroll processes are just as important to ensuring that payroll runs effectively and with integrity. 

Considering that we’re currently in the midst of an extremely tight labor market, demanding certifications for potential hires might not help you get the payroll professionals you need. More and more companies are promoting junior staff and training them on the job. This especially makes sense for large multinational companies that are running payroll hubs, meaning they’re managing payroll teams in various countries across the world and hiring internationally. So there’s a lot of value in an internal education and training program that is tailored to a company’s specific area of operations, instead of more general certifications.

Demanding certifications for potential hires might not help you get the payroll professionals you need.

When trying to attract talent, we first look at general skills that we consider important: analytical skills, problem-solving skills, being detail-oriented. That’s because we’ve learned that somebody who’s smart, has good analytical skills, works well with numbers, has an eye for details, and is good with Excel can easily be taught payroll in a couple of months. By focusing on training, internal onboarding and raising the complexity of the tasks — and keeping an eye on future career steps — you can help employees grow into new roles. 

In my experience, certifications are not given as much importance in Europe as they are in other places. I know that the U.S. is more keen on certifications for HR professionals in general. I can imagine that if you have a large, homogeneous market within the same legal framework, as tends to be the case in the U.S., then certification might make sense. But in my perspective, if you want to remain agile as a global company in this labor market and ensure that you’re attracting the best talent, I would focus on growing talent internally. Employers simply need to be more flexible and not add in the hurdles of certifications.

Mark van Bijsterveld

Based in Amsterdam, Mark van Bijsterveld is an experienced Chief HR Officer with a background in HR Services. Building impactful, efficient HR teams with homegrown talent is one of his passions. 

“Certifications take careers to the next level.”

Jeremy Montgomery

To an employer, certifications show that someone is committed to their industry and that they want to learn and develop their career. It also makes the company more appealing to clients, who can see that the employer places value on a formally educated staff that’s keen to continue developing their skills. It’s something companies can use as proof that they’re able to provide a high-quality service and are going to deliver what they promise.

But I have noticed that often more value is now placed on formal qualifications than maybe 10 years ago. Those who pursue learning opportunities tend to move forward in the industry, and understand more about what is required of them as a payroll professional. As people develop and move through the various payroll certifications, they learn vital skills in management, understanding strategic and financial planning, people management and so on. That person can then go into any business and understand how the business can grow. Qualifications really can go from the cradle to the grave.

Employers who are prepared to invest in new talent also want to see employees invest in themselves and their future.

Learning on the job is vital as well, and it puts employees in a great position to undertake formal training. Practical training is massively important, especially for those who are just starting out in payroll. But undertaking further study and gaining qualifications can give people an advantage with potential future employers, as it shows the candidate’s willingness to develop new skills and nurture a career. Employers who are prepared to invest in new talent also want to see employees invest in themselves and their future.

Let’s say I’m looking to recruit someone for a non-entry-level role on my team, for example, and I had two candidates who performed equally well in the interview, but one had a payroll certification and the other didn’t. Chances are, I would opt for the person who has the formal qualification instead of the one who doesn’t. On-the-job training is important for introducing new recruits into the world of payroll, but certifications provide the tools to take a career to the next level.

And of course the learning never stops: One of the biggest challenges for payroll professionals is compliance with ever-changing legislation. Certifications play a major part in educating individuals right from the get-go, but you have to continue to maintain that knowledge through certifications programs or even webinars and seminars made available by industry groups such as CIPP and HMRC in the U.K.

I would like to see more sponsorship from companies for certifications and further learning opportunities for their employees, as there is still a barrier for some when it comes to accessing further qualifications, whether that be costs or time constraints. But I strongly believe it’s worth undertaking and funding formal learning opportunities.

Jeremy Montgomery

Based in London, Jeremy Montgomery is a board director for the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals (CIPP). After getting his start in local government, he worked in payroll services for PwC for 17 years, and is now employed with MP Payroll Solutions.

What do you think? Join the debate by letting us know your thoughts.