Businesses are being urged to consider using their apprenticeship levy to invest in their employees as they seek to bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thousands of major businesses have struggled to use levy funds effectively since its introduction, with more than £400m in funds being returned to the government between May and December 2019, according to a BBC Freedom of Information request.

One business using the levy to invest in future talent is leading kitchen appliance company Whirlpool Corporation, which has partnered with skills specialist Seetec Outsource to develop a high-quality leadership programme for its UK division.

While Whirlpool and Seetec Outsource developed the bespoke Level 5 Strategic Leadership programme before the Covid-19 outbreak, launching it in late 2019, the company and learners continued to show commitment to their training through the lockdown, even if they had been furloughed.

To meet the challenges of lockdown, Seetec Outsource quickly adapted its delivery from a blended learning model to fully remote delivery with ongoing support from the learners’ apprenticeship development coach.

A total of 25 learners enrolled on the strategic leadership programme, with Whirlpool subsequently enrolling 16 learners on its Level 3 Team Leading programme, which launched in the Spring at the height of the Covid-19 crisis.

Whirlpool reported high levels of commitment and enthusiasm during lockdown. Seetec Outsource Client Relationship Manager, Deborah Sharkie, explained: “We are living and working in unprecedented times. The lockdown was a unique challenge, but the learners at Whirlpool felt the company continued to value them and was committed to investing in their development. It gave them focus during the lockdown and provided the learners an opportunity to prioritise their personal development goals.”

Deborah added: “Whirlpool saw early on that it’s not just about spending the levy, but about launching an effective talent development programme – investing in their people, establishing a culture of continuous learning and investment in tools to empower their workforce to fulfil their career ambitions.

“Businesses are getting to grips with the current economic reality, this is the right time to invest in the people who will have the vision, resilience and change management skills to drive their future success.”

James Cook, Regional Sales Manager at Whirlpool, continued learning while on the furlough scheme for several months. He said, “With the support of our development coach, I was able to fit coursework around childcare.

“Now I’m back at work I’ve started using some of the techniques I learnt on my course, and this has really helped me to readjust to the post-lockdown working environment.”

Anna Merlino, Jr HR Business Partner for Whirlpool, was at the heart of discussions to find a way forward after the company’s initial concerns about apprentices being required to spend 20 per cent of their time learning off-the-job before they committed to developing the programme.

Anna explained: “Seetec Outsource helped to address our questions so that we could see the benefits of the programme and how it could help to improve the development of our workforce.

“Seetec’s Partnership Manager showed me how we could structure the off-the-job element using a 70-20-10 model. The learning structure focuses a tenth of the time on formal learning, 70 per cent on experiential learning, including work projects and job shadowing, and 20 per cent is focused on learning from others, which includes 360-degree feedback, one-to-ones with managers, mentoring and coaching.

“Much of the learning and development programme we were already putting in place complemented the structure Seetec worked with us to develop. This helped to us to see the benefits of apprenticeships, boosting leadership skills for employees with some management experience and, with the Level 3 programme, investing in employees beginning their journey into management.”

A communications strategy was also put in place to engage leaders and managers across the organisation to embed a culture of learning and continuous professional development.

Whirlpool’s Anna Merlino said: “Seetec Outsource focused on the quality of the initial information, which helped to ensure the enrolment process was a success. The key has been a collaborative partnership – the programme can’t be delivered by the employer or the training provider alone. It feels like Seetec Outsource is part of our team.”

Anna concluded: “What I really like about this relationship is the support Seetec provides for the business and our learners. Seetec really understands Whirlpool, the needs of our workforce and has been very flexible throughout by accommodating our specific learning development needs.”

Whirlpool’s commitment has seen employees from consumer service, logistics, sales, marketing, legal and finance benefiting from development opportunities funded by the levy.

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