WORKING mum Louise Thorpe is a shining example of the value of apprenticeships, having used them as the foundation for building an impressive career with Darlington Building Society.

As National Apprenticeship Week comes to an end, Louise has shown that with personal commitment, the right course, and employer support, apprenticeships can be a dynamic route to success.

Seventeen years ago, after having her children, Louise answered an advert for a maternity relief, part-time position as a Customer Service Assistant with Darlington Building Society. Today, she is the Society’s Head of Direct Distribution, while also taking a Masters Degree in Strategic Leadership through an apprenticeship.

Now aged 39, Louise not only stayed on full-time with the Society after the maternity relief ended, but studied for her CeMAP (Certificate in Mortgage Advice and Practice) qualification with them, to become the mortgage advisor at the Guisborough branch where she worked.

Having combined this role with the responsibilities of being office manager, she went on to be promoted to branch manager in Middlesbrough.

During this time, she was offered the opportunity to join an apprenticeship ran by Northern Skills Group, with the support of Darlington Building Society, to study for the Institute of Leadership Management, Level 4, qualification.

Louise initially thought apprenticeships were for school-leavers, but when she reflected on the self-study that she undertook for the CeMAP, she realised that being on an apprenticeship meant that she would have more opportunities to put into practice what she would be learning.

“When I fully understood what the apprenticeship was offering, I realised that it would give me the chance to apply the academic modules to the workplace, thereby embedding my learning, knowledge, skills and behaviour,” she explains.

Louise completed her ILM Level 4 training, with day-release being held at Middlesbrough College, and then took a further module to gain her ILM Level 5.

“The course allowed me to focus on areas of the business where I might not normally be involved,” she says, “and gave me the opportunity to work with other stakeholders, and to gain a broader understanding of the business.”

Louise was clearly bitten by the learning and self-improvement bug, because in 2019 she enrolled on another apprenticeship, with the society, to study for a three-year Masters Degree in Strategic Leadership, based at Loughborough University.

She says: “I don’t have a long-term plan about my progression in the business, but I am taking the opportunities to gain as many transferable skills as I can, so that when a position arises with a job description where I think, ‘I can do that’, I’m in the best position to apply.

“The key thing for me is working with people to understand the business, and growing my own knowledge, skills and behaviour, so that I am the right person for that job.”

Louise works closely with her line manager, Chief Customer Officer, Darren Ditchburn, to fulfil her individual development plan, which includes supporting her apprenticeship. Darren acts as her work-place mentor, and she also has an academic mentor at Loughborough.

Through the apprenticeship, she is allowed a reduction of 20 per cent of her working hours in order to study.

“It’s not easy juggling work, a family life, and studying,” she admits, “but it’s a personal choice. The Society is investing in me as part of its ‘Grow Our Own’ strategy, so I’m prepared to make that commitment to wider learning.”

Louise was involved in the recent recruitment of the Society’s first direct intake of eight apprentices, so she has a good idea of what apprenticeships can do for them.

“As an organisation, we want to grow our own talent. We recognise that we might need to bring in external people for their knowledge and skills that we need as a business, but, where we can, we want to support those colleagues who want to grow within the Society. I feel that I’m a key example – where the Society has invested in me as an individual.”

“When I think back to where I started on the counter in Guisborough, and the opportunities that the Society has offered to me – or that I’ve requested – and how they’ve supported me on that journey; it goes back to that investment in me, and the chance for me to be able to put something back into the Society.”

Louise says that she can’t speak highly enough of Darlington Building Society, but jokes that, like a stick of rock, if you cut her through the middle, she’d probably have ‘DBS’ written inside.

Andrew Craddock, chief executive of Darlington Building Society, said: “We are passionate believers in developing our employees, and Louise is a great example of someone who has used apprenticeships to maximise the potential we knew she had.”