Planning and optimising the Apprenticeship Levy in the Construction industry: A conversation with Willmott Dixon

In 2020, Willmott Dixon – a privately-owned contracting and interior fit-out group – identified a crucial gap in their employee skillset: data. Working in partnership with Corndel, they piloted a 13-month Data Academy to upskill their employees in cross-departmental teams in the key areas of data so they could make more data informed decisions.

A year later and the benefits are clear to see. Willmott Dixon have seen improved customer service including a quicker turnaround time, the freeing up of expert data resources for strategic work, and improved lead time in planning and preparing bids. We spoke to Janette Welton-Pai, Group Funding and Learning Manager, about her experience running the programme and how Willmott Dixon are solving the data skills gap within the construction industry.


How did you recognise a need for data skills within Willmott Dixon?

When I joined Willmott Dixon, my role was brand new. I was given the remit to manage and optimise our Apprenticeship Levy. I had to develop a strategy – how could we make the most of it? I was having lots of conversations with leaders within the business and we very quickly identified a skills gap in data.

Our IT team were getting lots of demands for basic data requests that they felt could be dealt with by individual teams – as the saying goes “You can teach a man to fish…” And having people upskilled in data was obviously much more efficient rather than waiting for another team to action it, come back to them, etc.

We decided that data was something that touched on lots of different parts of the business and could have a massive impact – it’s obviously growing all the time in importance. For example, it helps us hugely in terms of pulling together tenders and planning and managing projects.


Do you believe there’s a data skills gap within the construction industry?

There’s definitely a data skills gap within the construction industry. I get a daily update from Construction News and I recently saw an article about other organisations putting a lot more emphasis on the importance of data, recognising that there’s a real need around it. We’ve identified where we can benefit from data upskilling, and that it can really help the business.

How did you approach planning and optimising your Apprenticeship Levy?

The importance of the Apprenticeship Levy was something that had been recognised before I joined – it’s one of the reasons why my role was created. I think the business had identified that not using the Levy was a bit of a waste, to be honest. The Apprenticeship Levy was being paid, but not always used, in addition, we were paying for traditional degree courses for our people. So effectively we were paying twice to get someone through a qualification.

Until recently, we hadn’t considered the Apprenticeship Levy as a method of upskilling for data. It is a great method of getting people the skills and knowledge they actually need.


How does this fit into Willmott Dixon’s wider learning and development strategy?

We knew we needed to get people onto the course who used data on a regular basis in their role. I think there were some people that are part of that cohort who were initially not sure whether it was the right course for them – and I think that it’s in those individuals where we’ve seen the biggest change in terms of attitude and approach.

Most of the group have been able to see very clearly how this programme can enhance their roles and make their lives easier, because now they’ve got the tools to be able to work more efficiently. But with that you obviously get the benefits to their area of the business and their team, but also the business as a whole.

I think there's still a massive misconception about what the word apprenticeship is and what it means. People have associations that are very historical now, and so I talked our employees through what an apprenticeship is in the modern day.

I had to explain what the data analytics apprenticeship is all about, and what the expectations were, and that was certainly something that needed quite a lot of discussion. People are doing their day jobs and didn’t want what they perceived to be as extra work.

What we needed to show people was how it fitted with what they were doing already, and that they could do the programme during work hours, and that it might need a little bit of extra effort in the short term, but in the long term this was going to massively benefit them in terms of being able to deliver their role more effectively.


How has the programme impacted business performance?

We’ve seen the benefits of the data analytics programme in all the key parts of our business. For example, the preparation of tenders and the quality of those, but also the delivery of the projects in general and the feedback from customers. Other examples of efficiencies include:

  • Improved customer service including quicker turnaround time
  • Freeing up of expert data resources for strategic work
  • Self-service business user approach to data means improved speed and less lost time
  • Improved lead time for preparing bids and improved quality of bids
  • Improved long-term planning due to data access
  • Learners report learning new coding languages, expanding their knowledge of databases, GDPR knowledge and how to plan/deliver/complete data analytics projects based on real life challenges as being key takeaways from the course to date, which are helping them in their roles.
  • Learners are using their new skills in different ways including building a new predictive model for project duration, developing new dashboards, using data to drive improvements in supply chain engagement and generally improving the quality of reporting across the business.


How is Willmott Dixon planning their learning and development strategy for 2022?

I think a key thing to point out is that this was a pilot from Wilmott Dixon’s perspective. We'd never done anything like this before. It was a radically different approach and I think the business has really seen the benefit of having apprenticeship cohorts – it is something we want to do a lot more of starting from 2022.

My plan for next year is to identify other common skills gaps that we can focus on, but it’s absolutely a strategy that we want to roll out further and do with other apprenticeships – we want to make the most of the Apprenticeship Levy for sure.

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