Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Stephanie Simcox's story

Insights from Worcestershire County Council on recruiting and managing apprentices remotely

We spoke with Stephanie Simcox, Deputy Chief Finance Officer (Service Finance) for Worcestershire County Council about her experience employing finance apprentices during the pandemic.

Can you tell us about your experience working with CIPFA?

All my experiences working with CIPFA have been extremely positive, whether that be on the training front, the qualification front or through its technical and organisational development programmes. CIPFA has supported Worcestershire County Council enormously with our training and development offer to our staff and I am proud to have been a member myself for the last 23 years. 

What features of the CIPFA apprenticeship programme set it apart from others?

What sets CIPFA apart from others is the support, advice and guidance given to students and the wealth of information available on its website. CIPFA’s study guides and online learning are exemplary and give students access not only to technical information but to lecturers, experts and their peers across the country. 

How did you decide what level of apprenticeship you wanted your apprentices to take?

We reviewed the gaps across the finance team relating to qualification level, succession planning and future proofing the finance service. We have a number of people who are already studying via the apprentice route for AAT level 4 but we didn’t have any existing members of staff starting their financial training career at the Level 2 and 3 stages of AAT. We discussed this with our partners at Heart of Worcestershire College who confirmed that there were a number of students were looking for careers in finance at this level. We also undertook visits to sixth form colleges and schools across the county. This assured us that we would have interest in these roles. 

With regard to CIPFA, we had successes recently with staff becoming fully qualified and have a good number of managers with the qualification. However, with the age profile of management, we decided that now was the time to look at succession planning and several our accountancy staff have now taken up the opportunity to work towards their CIPFA qualification. 

Are there any ways that you’ve had to adapt in response to the pandemic?

We are changing the way we work at Worcestershire, with the finance service undergoing a full review of how we act as one team to build the best service we can. We wanted to continue with our plan to develop our finance function to ensure we have succession planning for existing staff, to bring new ideas and energy into the business and to offer a number of people the opportunity to learn whilst they work.

We had this plan pre-pandemic and it was delayed for a couple of months at the beginning of lockdown, but we agreed that we needed to offer the new posts and development for existing staff at a time when the labour market was difficult for those living in and around Worcestershire. We felt that these working patterns were likely to remain the way they are during the medium term, so if we didn’t do it now then we would potentially lose a year of our development plan.

Taking on new staff during a global pandemic was different to normal recruitment processes, and we have used a mix of online and virtual interviewing techniques and face-to-face assessment centres hosted by our partners at Heart of Worcestershire College.

All application forms are usually done online, but the online interview process was totally different. The process was less stressful for candidates as they were in their own environment and in that sense, more relaxed. A couple of candidates had technology issues using their broadband connections, so patience was essential and having alternative contact telephone numbers was vital. We also needed to demonstrate a reassuring manner with them if they lost connection during the interview. 

How do you monitor the wellbeing, work and motivation of your apprentices remotely?

Everyone is different and requires different methods of motivation, support and guidance. It is important to understand from each individual what they need, how they work and what they want from managers and peers. 

The apprentices have developed a great working relationship with each other as well as with their line managers. They meet on a weekly basis to talk about things they are doing, share their positives and their developments and together work up plans for success. They have weekly catchups on a one-to-one basis with their line managers who have work plans for each of them. 

They are also given access to a breadth of information through our HR offer including mindfulness, working remotely, wellbeing, and support from mental health champions if needed. We all work flexibly and encourage them to take regular breaks and down time. 

What would you say are the benefits of participating in an apprenticeship programme and employing apprentices?

We offered the AAT apprenticeship posts on a comparable salary to our existing finance assistants, which was more than the national minimum for apprentices, and a flexible working offer rather than just 9 to 5 in an office. We offer an excellent career average pension scheme, paid annual leave, study leave to attend college and to take exams as well on the job training and development. Each apprentice has another apprentice as a “buddy” and a senior manager as a mentor to support their development. They have weekly apprentice meetings where they take turns to chair, giving them experience of managing meetings and an opportunity to share ideas, experiences and ask questions of a senior manager who also attends to support them. 

CIPFA apprentices have the opportunity to learn whilst being paid to deliver varied and interesting roles across finance. They have opportunities to get experience working in different areas of finance and our children’s company. They also have contact with officers who have recently qualified, so they are able to get support with the transition from AAT to their CIPFA qualification.

What advice could you provide to other employers?

I would absolutely recommend apprentices to other organisations. Support is available through the training route as well as financial assistance with their training costs, but above all it allows the organisation to grow, develop and harness talent who may ultimately be the finance directors of the future. Apprentices have given senior staff a different way of looking at things. Their drive, ambition and different outlook has inspired me and others to look at things with fresh eyes and from completely different perspectives.