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Fostering the next generation of payroll

With Baby Boomers aging out of the workplace, payroll leaders have to foster the industry’s up-and-comers.

As the world’s workplaces have started to adjust to the massive changes brought on by the pandemic, there’s a new challenge confronting hiring managers: filling staffing and knowledge gaps left by retiring Baby Boomers. 

Although it’s been a topic of discussion for several years now as older Boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — began to retire, the issue is taking on new urgency as younger members of the cohort reach retirement age. In 2030, the youngest Boomers will be 66, creating shortages in leadership positions — and leaving more room for following generations to advance. 

While most companies discuss succession plans for C-suite roles early and often, hiring managers should think about pipelines for all essential roles, including in payroll. Payroll has long been the silent superhero of the work world; every employee of a company takes notice when that particular department is off its game. 

The great thing about hiring for payroll, though, is that anyone with good critical thinking skills and a desire to learn can grow into the role.

“There are so many different roles within the payroll industry, and people who are in the payroll industry come from all sorts of backgrounds — for example, lawyers, scientists, media,” says Melanie Pizzey, CEO of the London-based Global Payroll Association (GPA). “Payroll is a complex industry, which is dynamic and pressurized but rewarding.”

The trends ahead

Organizations around the world are already starting to see payroll shortages. 

ADP’s Potential of payroll: Global payroll survey 2022 found that more than half (53%) of respondents said their payroll service had been affected by a shortage of payroll staff. And more than a third (37%) had seen more than 10% of their payroll professionals leave the business over the past few years.

To fill those gaps, the diversity of talent and backgrounds could be a selling point for future generations of payroll leaders. The next generation of payroll specialists can expect to encounter more changes stemming from generative artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies and blockchain, and big data. 

In the meantime, data-entry jobs — including payroll data entry — are on the way out, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2023 report. Accounting, bookkeeping and payroll clerks are among the jobs expected to see the most disruption in the next five years, the report found. Globally, 29% of workers in this category may find themselves without jobs, with the figure growing to more than half in Austria, the Czech Republic and Turkey, and 70% in Saudi Arabia.

Churn of accounting, bookkeeping and payroll clerks 2023-2027

But if handled properly, automation driven by machine learning can be a good thing, elevating the tasks performed by payroll professionals. “The payroll professional will need to upskill and be able to develop insights and tell stories with the vast data to which they have access,” reports Canada’s National Payroll Institute (NPI). ADP’s 2022 global payroll survey also found that businesses are looking to their payroll teams to provide analytics, compliance and data security. That will require strategic recruiting — and a healthy dose of self-promotion. 

“The payroll department is taken for granted, as it is only really noticed if something goes wrong,” Pizzey says. “I think the payroll industry really hasn’t promoted itself as a profession to join until the last couple of years.” 

Anecdotally, the vast majority of payroll specialists come to the profession later in their careers, she adds. 

For Jennifer Collins, Microsoft’s Senior Director of Global Payroll, emphasizing the positive impact of payroll can play a huge part in attracting new talent. “As payroll professionals, our mission is clear: We empower our employees through the accurate and timely delivery of pay,” she says. 

However, that mission — and the ways in which payroll professionals strive to achieve it — isn’t always communicated efficiently. “Potential employees might think they understand what payroll does, based on viewing their payslips every period,” she says. “But they don’t see all the fascinating and complex work that goes into making that payslip happen.”

Career playgrounds 

Employees are also rethinking the pathway to a rewarding career, and supporting this development can yield fruitful results, Collins says. 

“Employees no longer think of a ‘career ladder.’ At Microsoft, we talk of a ‘career playground’ instead,” she says. “Nowadays, your career starts with finding a role that gives you the chance to explore your interests. Then you might move laterally, or go down a slide to gain new experience, and then swing up to new heights. Today, some of the most talented employees aren’t climbing ladders anymore; they’re defining success on their own terms.” 

Providing employees with opportunities to explore their own “career playgrounds” will strengthen an organization’s existing talent and provide appealing incentives for new recruits eager to stretch their wings.

Continuing education programs, such as those offered by the GPA, NPI and the U.S.-based PayrollOrg, can help enable the transition. (The rebranded PayrollOrg launched this past spring to bring the American Payroll Association and the Global Payroll Management Institute together under one name.) 

Each organization offers in-person and online learning opportunities. In addition to web-based courses, PayrollOrg offers week-long certification courses at its Las Vegas-based Learning Center, and gives organizations the option to organize in-house training programs on-site. The GPA also offers a wide variety of training programs that detail country-specific compliance issues. 

Regardless of the training’s format, financial and logistical support from employers is key to helping both new and existing employees succeed, Pizzey has found. “The most successful learners had support from their employers, who provided time for the students to learn there,” she says. “People who didn’t have support from their employers left the program or the industry.”


Formal and informal mentorship also play a key role in nurturing payroll talent. For example, the GPA’s “Payroll is a Career” campaign connects early-stage payroll professionals with experienced mentors who specialize in the same areas. Its podcast Women in Payroll, co-hosted with ADP’s Graham Wylie, offers ideas and career inspiration for men and women alike. And of course, in-house mentorship and leadership are invaluable to helping payroll specialists upskill. 

Collins also advises payroll team leaders to proactively take the reins and consider the individual strengths and aspirations of existing employees, including how they can contribute to a “payroll dream team,” as she calls it. 

“Are you fully aware of the plans and aspirations of your current team members? You should be utilizing this data to inform your future promotion decisions, as current team members may be looking outside your organization for new career experiences or to build new skills,” she says. Supporting employees’ goals and interests should be a key part of a payroll leader’s strategy.

Attending conferences like ADP ReThink is a good way to keep your skills up to date.

Staying ahead of the curve 

Payroll is, of course, not a stagnant field. One of the best ways to keep up with changes is through conferences, events, online discussions and webinars, and industry resource collections that allow employees to stay current. 

From organized workshops to more informal discussions at meals, or even just sharing a ride to or from the airport, conferences have long served as a key way to build skills during every level of a person’s career. 

PayrollOrg’s in-person conference roster includes the annual Payroll Congress, the Educational Institutions Payroll Conference, the Capital Summit, and the Payroll Leaders Conference. GPA’s Payroll Summit takes place in the U.K. each spring, and ADP’s ReThink event is held in a new location, generally in Europe, early each year. NPI hosts a Canada-wide payroll conference each spring.

Most payroll organizations also host live online events and offer free webinars for members. GPA offers a free Masterclass video series taught by experts, and PayrollOrg has an extensive library of on-demand webinars for its members. Canada’s NPI also regularly hosts webinars and other continuing education events. The associations also provide online libraries of free and paid publications. 

As the world of work continues to experience wave after wave of upheaval, one thing is certain: payroll professionals have a vital role to play — and more resources than ever to help the next generation meet the moment. 

Jenna Schnuer

Anchorage, Alaska-based Jenna Schnuer writes about business, science, travel, and whatever else interests her along the day. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, Fortune and other outlets. Her first job was as a bookseller in a now-defunct chain bookstore.