As housebuilders’ troubles get ever deeper, up to 35,000 employees face losing their jobs. But for those like site manager Fraser Gray, life after redundancy doesn’t have to be the dole queue. Michael Glackin reports

A month ago, the world seemed a bleak place for Fraser Gray. The 32-year-old assistant site manager had just been made redundant by housebuilder Carvill Scotland. What’s more, because he had less than two years’ service, he was entitled to to no more than a month’s salary in lieu of notice.

“I can’t say it was completely out of the blue,” he says. “You could see what was happening in the market. But when you get the letter it’s still a shock. One minute colleagues are telling me about the next project we’ll be working on and the next, well, they’re not your colleagues any more.”

The slow-motion international catastrophe that has overtaken the British housing industry, its customers and investors, is now carrying away its employees. So far this year, well over 2,000 jobs have been lost at the large housebuilders and research recently carried out for Building by Experian and Construction-Skills makes a rough estimate that 35,000 more will go in the next two years.

As things turned out, Gray was one of the lucky ones. Within weeks of being made redundant he was taken on by a contractor based in Lanarkshire, and after a few weeks in his new job was promoted to site manager. “I got a good break here,” he says. “It took a few weeks to adjust as I’ve worked in housebuilding for so long. Dealing with a client is a rather new experience for me, but there’s so much scope with the company, everything from commercial and industrial to general construction and housebuilding. It’s the kind of experience I wanted.”

One minute colleagues are telling me about the next project we’ll be working on and the next, well, they’re not your colleagues any more

It isn’t only the ones who have lost their jobs who are suffering. Those who remain have to live with the knowledge that their livelihoods are at risk. One young manager working with a leading housebuilder, who did not wish to be named, said: “My company is cutting staff and right now I’m not sure if I’ll have a job next year or even next week. I’m in a situation now where I can’t plan, where I can’t make financial commitments, because this cloud is constantly hanging over me. But once you start looking around for other jobs in construction you become very aware of how limited the skills you acquire with a housebuilder are.”

He is the kind of bright graduate that the wider industry is keen to attract, but whom it finds difficult to accommodate: “I’d love to get more experience on the commercial development side or make the switch to being a QS, but few companies recognise skills gained on residential schemes. I’m now considering options outside construction.”

His fears about the transferability of housebuilding skills are confirmed by a recruiter at a top-10 QS. He says: “Housebuilding skills are quite niche so people coming from that sector would need to be retrained for most other jobs. We recruit a number of graduates from non-core disciplines, but for junior trainee positions. A person with housebuilding experience would probably pick up the training quicker, but it’s unlikely someone who has held a senior position would be prepared to start at the bottom again.”

Colin Woodward, director of Contract Scotland, a recruitment consultant, adds that even those housebuilding managers with transferable skills, such as experience of large mixed-use schemes, will often face a pay cut if they leave the sector. “You have to remember housebuilders are traditionally the best payers in construction,” he says. “Anyone moving out of the sector is usually facing a pay cut. Some are willing to do that in the current climate, particularly those that have fewer than two years with a company, but not all.”

A lot of these people deliver complex residential schemes. I’m not saying they can suddenly become QSs but it wouldn’t be a great leap for them to become building surveyors

Tim Fox, Hays Recruitment

Gray got first-hand experience of how the wider industry views housebuilding managers when he was looking for a new job. “It’s not just QSs. I felt like main contractors wouldn’t touch me, either. One said my background wasn’t right because it was residential development even though I have a construction degree.”

Tim Fox, chief executive of recruitment group Hays, says employers are losing out on well-trained workers. “A lot of these people deliver complex residential and commercial schemes. I’m not saying they can suddenly become QSs but it wouldn’t be a great leap for them to become building surveyors.”

One option is to relocate to the Middle East, which is so far unaffected by the credit crunch. “The volume of recruitment is increasing in the Middle East as it’s getting worse here,” says Neil Morris, head of property and construction recruitment company Digby Morris. “It’s mostly QSs and commercial managers, but residential development is huge in the Middle East and that opens up opportunities for people who have managed development programmes on major housing schemes in the UK.”

He adds: “If you’re working on a large residential development in the Middle East, that offers you more security than you have here, and there is scope to get work on other projects when you finish.”

It clearly won’t suit everyone, but the adage that getting fired is nature’s way of telling you that you had the wrong job in the first place may yet hold true for a few like Gray.

Working Life: Redundancy