How to use the apprenticeship levy effectively is a challenge many major businesses have faced since its introduction in 2017.

While the recent pandemic has amplified some of the issues, many organisations blame the levy’s apparent complexity and rigidity for significant underspends and falling apprenticeship starts. However plenty of businesses have seen their apprenticeships grow and thrive under the new system.

One such example is Whirlpool Corporation, the world’s leading kitchen and laundry appliance company. Having partnered with Seetec Outsource to develop a high-quality leadership programme for its UK division, it is now using its apprenticeship levy to invest in employees who will drive the future success of the business.

Removing Barriers

When the apprenticeship levy was first introduced Whirlpool felt the requirement for apprentices to spend 20% of their time learning off-the-job was a major obstacle.

Anna Merlino, Jr HR Business Partner for Whirlpool, was approached by a number of training providers, and accepted an invitation to a Seetec Outsource workshop in order to understand the apprenticeship levy better.

Anna said, “Seetec Outsource really helped to address my doubts, and showed me the benefits apprentices could bring to the business. I realised this was a great opportunity to invest in the development of our people.

“Seetec’s Partnership Manager showed me how we could structure the 20% with much more than classroom-based learning, for example, learning from others, internal programmes, coaching and mentoring.

“We discussed a 70-20-10 model, with just 10% being formal learning with employees attending workshops. 70% is experiential learning, including work projects and job shadowing, and 20% focuses on learning from others, 360-degree feedback, one-to-ones with managers, mentoring and coaching. Much of the development we were already putting in place could be included.

“This really helped to change my mind as we could align it with our existing development schemes. I could see the power behind the programme.”

Identifying opportunities for learning and development

The next step was for Seetec Outsource to work with Whirlpool to understand where their competencies and skills gaps lay, and identify opportunities to support staff learning and development.

This involved carrying out internal assessments from both a HR and business perspective to understand what excellence looks like to the business, and ensure that programmes funded through the apprenticeship levy would meet the company’s needs and expectations.

The outcome of this initial consultation was a consensus among stakeholders that priority should be given to boosting leadership skills within the business. This was recognised as a more pressing area for development than technical skills for drivers and engineers, which had initially been considered.

As a result, Seetec Outsource worked closely with Whirlpool senior leaders and key stakeholders to build a Strategic Leadership programme at level 5 for individuals with some management experience, followed by a level 3 Team Leader programme for employees who were just beginning their journey into management.

Road to launch

Launching these programmes with Whirlpool involved about 6 months of detailed planning, analysis, research and development. And both parties recognise the importance of continuous improvement once the programmes are running, which can only be achieved by working in true partnership.

Seetec Outsource Client Relationship Manager Deborah Sharkie explained, “It’s like an iceberg, with pre-planning being the much larger piece under the surface. Whirlpool really grasped the importance of this. It’s not just about spending the levy, but about launching an effective talent development programme – investing in the right people, on the right development pathway and for the right reasons.”

Once a project plan had been agreed Seetec Outsource helped to develop a curriculum, and engaged specialist delivery coaches and third-party experts to build the bespoke and tailored programmes.

A robust communications strategy was also put in place to engage stakeholders, nominated colleagues and managers across the organisation. Securing the full support of leaders at all levels is essential to promote the benefits of the programmes, and to embed a new culture of learning and continuous professional development.

Whirlpool’s Anna Merlino said, “Seetec Outsource were really helpful, providing information on time and in detail – focusing on the quality of the initial information – to make enrolment as successful as possible. They let us know if learners hadn’t provided the required information and sent all workshop dates in advance, so learners could diarise and plan around them.

“The key has been collaboration. The programme can’t be delivered by the employer or the training provider alone – there has to be cooperation and coordination on both sides.

“We’ve tapped into the expertise of Seetec Outsource and come together as a collaborative partnership. It feels like Seetec Outsource is part of our team.”

Learning during lockdown

The level 5 strategic leadership programme proved so popular that Whirlpool decided to run two separate cohorts, initially enrolling 25 learners and launching in late 2019. This provided a great deal of flexibility, as employees could attend an alternative workshop if they were unable to attend the one scheduled for their group.

Whirlpool subsequently enrolled another 16 learners on its team leading programme, which launched in Spring 2020 during the Covid-19 crisis.

Despite the challenges of launching a new programme during lockdown, Seetec Outsource quickly adapted its delivery. Instead of a blended learning model, which involves a mixture of face-to-face and remote learning, Seetec Outsource moved to a fully remote delivery model. This enabled learners to begin or continue their training during the pandemic, even if they had been furloughed, with ongoing support from their development coach to ensure they stayed on track.

James Cook, Regional Sales Manager at Whirlpool, continued his programme of learning while on furlough for close to three months. He said, “With the support of Nicole, our development coach, I was able to fit coursework in around childcare. Our monthly workshops were delivered remotely through virtual classrooms in a clear and concise manner, with a day’s learning condensed into a few hours.

“Nicole and our line managers have really helped and encouraged us. Now that I’m back at work I’ve started using some of the techniques gained from the course, and this has really helped me to readjust to a working environment.”

Whirlpool reported higher levels of commitment and a higher level of enthusiasm during the period of lockdown. Seetec’s Deborah Sharkie said, “Although these were difficult circumstances, learners at Whirlpool felt that the company valued them and was investing in their development. It kept them focussed and those on furlough had more time to learn.

“When we return to some kind of normality some of the face-to-face sessions will resume. This is important for the group’s social interaction and ability to work together as a team. But the remote learning model has worked well and enabled our learners to progress.”

Strengthening our partnership

Reflecting on the launch of their new talent development programmes, Whirlpool’s Anna Merlino said, “It’s been a very successful start. Our learners are very willing to give and receive feedback, and some of them are already putting the techniques they have learned in place.

“The key to success has been communication with Seetec Outsource. What I really like about this relationship is the support Seetec provides for the business and our learners. They are always willing to help. They flag up learners who are not on track, so we can work with them to offer more support.

“Seetec really understands our business and our people. As a large company we have peaks or business needs which could require extension of deadlines, for example. Seetec has been very flexible to accommodate our needs.”

Whirlpool’s commitment to working in partnership with its chosen training provider means that employees from many different areas of its UK business – from consumer service and logistics to sales, marketing, legal and finance – are now benefiting from development opportunities funded by the apprenticeship levy. Ongoing collaboration will be key to supporting learners as they approach end-point assessment, and to continuing to develop the wide range of skills that ensures Whirlpool remains a market leader.