A Roadmap to Payroll Certifications (CPP and FPC)

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  • The American Payroll Association (APA) has two general payroll certification programs
  • A Certified Payroll Professional (CPP) designation can be earned by those working in payroll for several years
  • The Fundamental Payroll Certification (FCP) generally is available for those who are new to payroll
  • To retain certified status, both designations require approved continuing education

Shortly after the American Payroll Association was formed In the early 1980s, an effort began to educate and elevate those working in payroll through a certification program. The purpose behind this push was to lend some legitimacy to payroll becoming a professional career track with specialized knowledge needed to understand the key functions and master the operations.

Two certification programs for payroll professionals

Nearly 40 years later, the APA oversees two types of certification programs and tests: the Certified Payroll Professional, or CPP, and the Fundamental Payroll Certification, or FPC. 

The APA has developed other certificate programs geared toward specific aspects of the payroll function, and there are certificate programs, including payroll, in several colleges and universities, but there are no other widely available general payroll certifications in the United States. One cannot yet get a four-year college degree in payroll.

Canadians have their own certification exam process through the Canadian Payroll Association, and there are similar designations and degrees that payroll professionals can achieve in the U.K. and in other countries.

To become a Certified Payroll Professional

To earn the CPP designation, individuals are required to meet two experience criteria and pass a four-hour exam. The first criteria allows those to take the exam if they have worked in payroll for three of the past five years, and there are definitions for qualified payroll work. 

The second criteria requires at least 24 consecutive months of work in payroll and the completion of a set of courses before taking the exam.

Then the 190-question exam can be scheduled and taken. It is recommended that those desiring the CPP designation do some preparatory training. The exam covers seven key areas of payroll, including core payroll concepts, compliance, calculation of pay, payroll systems, payroll management and administration, audits and accounting. 

While the APA provides extensive study material, local APA chapters throughout the country also conduct CPP-related training classes. 

Recent APA statistics show that approximately 50% of those taking the CPP exam pass and become CPPs. 

The designation is effective in five-year increments, and it can be renewed by participating in continuing education through programs that offer Recertification Credit Hours (RCHs), the APA’s version of CLEs for legal continuing education, or CPEs for certified public accountants. The APA allows some payroll-related curriculum with CLE and CPE designations to be converted to RCH equivalents.

Should an individual fail to show an accumulation of 120 RCHs after five years, they can lose their CPP designation and, to get it back, they may need to take the CPP exam again. 

Since the first CPP test was developed in 1985, there are now more than 11,000 active certified payroll professionals, according to the APA. 

More information on CPP eligibility and the exam is available on the APA website.

The Fundamental Payroll Certification program

The first FPC designation was developed in 2000 as a way for the APA to recognize those who may be new to the payroll field or who are working in some areas of payroll but are not working directly as payroll professionals. This includes sales professionals/consultants serving the payroll industry, systems analysts/engineers supporting payroll systems, and payroll service provider client representatives.

Candidates are allotted three hours to complete the 150-question exam that covers the same seven key areas of payroll that are included in the CPP exam. 

Approximately 75% of those taking the FPC exam pass, according to recent APA statistics. There are now more than 7,000 FPC’s.

More information on FPC eligibility and the exam is available on the APA website.

Both exams are available over a four-week period in the fall and spring and, starting in 2020,  exams have been proctored remotely.

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