‘I had to save £17K to follow my development dream’

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Rebecca Nutt Atelier Capital Partners

Follow your dreams, that mantra of every other Instagram post, can be a surprisingly costly endeavour, in time, energy, and money of course. The price is much higher if, like Rebecca Nutt, head of development monitoring at bridging lender Atelier Capital Partners, there is no family financial safety net to catch you – just the catalyst of “blind optimism” pushing you forward.

“I had to save £17,000, before I could leave my job as an estate agent and sign up for the one year full time Masters in Building Surveying,” she recalls, totting up the hefty bill to realise her ambition to become a surveyor – course fees (£6,000), exorbitant London rent, living costs and transport for the year out.

Her parents, “although very good people, are not the sort to lend, or have, this kind of money”, says Nutt. So she scrimped and saved. She admits it was tough going. “But it was worth it – and I was sure it would all work out,” she says.

It is no coincidence her approach was successful. Target Jobs, a recruitment website, asked a range of companies in the property space what they look for in potential candidates. It found recruiters assess would-be graduate surveyors by testing their ‘soft skills’, those not specific to any particular job, but highly valued by employers. Knight Frank, the high end estate agents, cited ‘being driven as one of the essential competences we seek”.

“This ensures that individuals go the extra mile, challenge the status quo and have a healthy competitive nature,” a graduate recruiter at Knight Frank told Total Jobs, adding they look for evidence of this via interviews that assess behavioural competencies, and crucially, “examples of candidates being driven in their personal and work lives”.

Nutt, 41, from Northern Ireland, has worked in property since going to university to study politics in Glasgow about 23 years ago; while most students pick up a bar job to make ends meet, she took on a weekend role as an estate agent. After graduation she started selling houses full time, before she decided she wanted more, and took the bold step to give up a regular wage and head back to uni for the surveyor’s postgrad.

“I’ve always been interested in the property industry but I didn’t have any family working in that area and so my path to get where I am now took a while to navigate,” she says.

Just under three fifths (59pc) of real estate graduates in employment in the UK are working as chartered surveyors, according to Prospects, the graduate jobs advice site. Construction project managers and related professionals, inspectors of standards and regulations, quantity surveyors and property, housing and estate managers are also among the top five most popular jobs for real estate graduates.

In those early years, Nutt worked within the estate agent’s new homes division and came into contact with the full gamut of property professionals, from valuation and building surveyors to property solicitors, architects, builders, and property developers. That’s when something clicked.

“I realised there was a whole other side to the property industry out there and knew I wanted to get involved, so I asked one of the developers whose projects we were selling for some advice,” she says.

He told her to look into building surveying, selling it as “a nice mix between being on site and being in the office”.  He also told Nutt she would never be out of work, “as buildings always needed to be maintained”. She took his advice and didn’t look back.  It was a stark contrast to the encouragement she’d been given as a teenager.

Women often get pigeonholed early on as being ‘best suited’ to certain careers, those which, mysteriously, more likely than not are lower paid and less well valued by society. It is one reason women earn less over a lifetime; the UK gender pay gap narrowed from 26% in 2000 to 16% in 2018, but progress has remained stalled in recent years, with the gender pay gap remaining constant at 17% between 2013 and 2017 and falling slightly to 16% in 2018, according to analysis by PwC. (Knock-on effects include fewer investable assets, and pensions a third smaller than men’s). This almost happened to Nutt.

“My school, an all-girls grammar, tended to push more traditional female careers, teaching, law, healthcare, so I wasn’t really aware of surveying until I stumbled across it when working as an estate agent,” she says, adding, with relief, that this is less likely today, with with STEM subjects being much more promoted to girls in the classroom.

On graduation from her hard won Masters, Nutt went to work for Colliers International where she did her RICS accreditation exam and became chartered. She moved to MDA Consulting four years ago to focus solely on bank and fund monitoring, before arriving at Atelier in May 2020 to head up their internal development monitoring team. Her problem now is finding qualified surveyors with the right skill set.

“Recruitment is a big challenge. Finding suitably experienced surveyors is a struggle as fewer and fewer surveyors are entering the industry,” she says. According to the Prospects data, only 1.1pc of graduate surveyors are unemployed but 49pc go into further study, which may help account for the dearth of candidates Nutt is seeing. She thinks there’s another issue too.

“I think more effort needs to be made to increase the number of entrants to the surveying world. The apprenticeship route to RICS membership should be encouraged with surveying practices taking on students when they are 16-18 years old,” she says. When Nutt looked on the government apprenticeship website recently she found only one apprenticeship position advertised in the whole of London for that age range.

Research by RICS in 2019 found a 30% increase in the number of 18-30-year-olds qualifying as surveyors since 2013. To add to this, RICS also reported an increase in young professional women entering its ‘Young Surveyor of the Year Awards’, despite less than 14% of UK surveyors being female.

Since 2013 the number of young people aged 18-30 qualifying as Chartered Surveyors or Associate Surveyors has steadily increased each year, according to RICS data, from 1,125 in 2013 to just under 1,520 young people of the same age group entered the surveying profession in 2018. RICS points out this increase in more young talent pursuing careers in surveying is much needed in an industry that lacks a diverse workforce, and where the average age of a surveyor is 55.

“Looking back I learnt much more about surveying on the job than I did at university,” says Nutt. “You don’t need a degree to be a good surveyor, you just need good hands on, practical training. If I could have been offered a chance to earn while I learned, and not had student tuition fees, I would have grabbed it,” she says. Nutt wants the profession promoted more to secondary school leavers and for surveying firms to adapt to take on this level of employee. She also sees another innovative solution.

“There is a lack of appreciation for older surveyors.  It’s mad to think that when someone retires we just let them walk out the door and take 40 years of knowledge and experience with them,” she says, proposing instead a system where retired surveyors, if they wanted to, could be retained one or two days a week to help train juniors.

“Juniors need their work checked constantly when starting out and already qualified surveyors, who need to chase fees and targets, don’t have the time necessary to dedicate to it.  It seems the perfect match if only we as an industry could get organised to set it up,” says Nutt.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, coming up with better ways of doing things is a key part of Nutt’s role at Atelier, where her job is to streamline systems and grow the development monitoring arm. “I’m enjoying using my skill set to improve this side of the business,” she says, “it’s quite rare for lenders to have their own in-house surveying team but managing risk effectively and being able to respond quickly to borrowers are key Atelier ‘must-haves’”.

It is a strategy that seems to work; Atelier revealed at the end of January that it had funded over £100m of loans in the previous 12 months, having only been founded in August 2019. Atelier, which specialises in short-term finance for professional residential developers and SME property companies, reached the milestone after posting its strongest ever quarter – £35m lent in the last three months of 2020.

Graham Emmett, chief investment officer at the lender, attributed the success to his team. “The arrival of Covid delivered a once-in-a-generation shock to the economy, but the quality of our people and our proposition have kept us firmly on track, and we’re now on course to break the £200m barrier before 2021 is out,” he said in January.

Like many in the relentlessly fast-paced property sector (made more so since July 2020 when Chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced the stamp duty holiday, now extended to June and discounted until September), Nutt loves the ever-changing nature of the industry. “I don’t know any other career where you come into contact with so many specialists and experts in their fields,” she says. It’s clear she relishes having so many peers from other professions to work with. “From planning through to sales a successful development project is the culmination of so many skill sets,” she says.

When she’s not at work, a big focus for Nutt is sustainability and the environment.  “I took a year out about five years ago to work on organic farms and now I like to grow my own organic fruit and veg. It’s hard work and labour intensive.  I fully appreciate why organic is more expensive,” she says. Environmental, social and good governance (ESG) concerns have become increasingly fashionable in the last few years. According to research by PwC, ESG funds will experience a more than threefold jump in assets by 2025, increasing their share of the European fund sector from 15 per cent to 57 per cent. But Nutt is no fly-by-night glory hunter, rolling up her sleeves at the less glamorous end of the green spectrum, as a member of the local litter picking group.

“The amount of litter lying around, from bins attacked by foxes, lazy humans, and the rest, drives me crazy, and pictures of birds stuck in face masks that people have thrown away finally drove me to sign up and become a ‘street champion’,” she says. The group has become a social hub. “I’ve met a lot of lovely people who are all keen to improve the community we live in.”

Many are involved in other community projects, among the few options for social interaction with lockdowns severely restricting even domestic travel in the past year. “It’s a great way to hear what’s going on locally, meet neighbours and feel more connected to your area,” says Nutt, who also organised a socially distanced street party last year when Covid restrictions were less severe. “I’m lucky to live on a really sociable and friendly street.  We are always helping each other out.”

With young people currently weighing up their future career options and due to break for summer in just a few months into an unenviable jobs market, and having been tempest-tossed in more than a year of disrupted education, what advice does Nutt have for those considering entering property?

“Go for it. Your job can take you down so many paths,” she says. Options taken by her own Chartered surveyor friends include using their skills to start their own practices, or moving client side to work as an in-house adviser for banks and insurance companies, or to work with construction firms as project managers. Some have even gone back to universities as lecturers.

“Just because you’re a quantity surveyor or a building surveyor doesn’t mean you have to sit in a professional practice churning out reports forever,” she says. “Once you’re Chartered and have a couple of years’ experience under your belt, lots of different doors open.”