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Toll Bros., Hovnanian and other builders cut thousands of jobs

Call it the other human toll in the steep downturn in the nation's housing market. Builders have been eliminating thousands of jobs.

Photographs of half-built, nearly empty subdivisions in California and other overbuilt markets may symbolize the four-year decline in the housing business.

And monthly data on new home sales and housing prices may document how far the industry has fallen. Mortgage defaults continue to rise, and some people are losing their homes.

But a review of some of the publicly held builders' annual reports reveals another human cost - job loss in the industry.

Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., of Red Bank, N.J., filed its Form 10-K on Christmas Eve, disclosing employment of 2,816 people as of Oct. 31. That was down from 4,318 a year earlier, or a loss of more than 1,500 jobs.

Beazer Homes USA Inc., of Atlanta, had 1,444 employees as of Sept. 30, 2008. It cut 1,175 jobs since Sept. 30, 2007, or 45 percent of its workforce.

Regionally, Orleans Homebuilders Inc. reduced its headcount by more than 20 percent during its fiscal year ended June 30, to 544 people. The Bensalem company said between June 30, 2006, and Aug. 31, 2008, it slashed its workforce by more than 50 percent.

Toll Bros. Inc. , the nationwide luxury home builder, eliminated 1,169 jobs over its fiscal year ended Oct. 31. Its workforce of 3,160 is now smaller than it was during its fiscal year ended Oct. 31, 2003. Employment peaked at 6,147 as of July 31, 2006.

In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, most builders simply provide a total employment figure. But Toll Bros., which filed its Form 10-K on Dec. 19, actually breaks down its employment by type of job. So you can track over time the change in the number of workers involved in various aspects of home building.

For example, Toll Bros. had 417 people working in construction as of the end of its most recent fiscal year. That's down 69 percent from the 1,331 it employed as of Oct. 31, 2005.

Not a big surprise. If you're not building as many homes, you don't need as many construction workers.

But Toll Bros.' architectural and engineering team got hit even harder. At 70 people now, that group is down 76 percent from the 294 employed more than three years ago.

The Horsham-based home builder has also cut more than 1,000 administrative and clerical jobs over the last two years. Its 1,231 back-office personnel account for 39 percent of Toll Bros.'s overall employment.

However, one part of its workforce continues to grow. Manufacturing and distribution now has 280 people, up from 258 as of Oct. 31, 2007. At factories in Emporia, Va., Knox, Ind., and Morrisville, Pa., employees make open wall panels, roof and floor trusses, and other building materials used in its communities.

Toll Bros. considers these operations crucial for increased efficiencies, cost savings and productivity. Still you have to wonder how long it can avoid cuts in those facilities given the worst housing market since World War II.

Who will buy?

It wasn't that long ago that it seemed nearly every big company was in play, and private-equity firms were tripping over each other to buy them.

Now with the credit crunch and global recession forcing retrenchment everywhere, PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that 2009 will bring "mergers of necessity."

"Troubled companies will look to align with larger, stronger players in order to survive," said Robert Filek, a partner in the consulting firm's Transaction Services group.

Thomson Reuters says the value of announced transactions in the United States was $1.1 trillion for the first 11 months of 2008, down from $1.6 trillion for the same period of 2007.