In a building next to the Mass. Pike in Newton, two construction crews are at work. Enter the front door, labeled with a sheet of paper that says “Forge,” and a crew is renovating a 1960s-era office space that will eventually house software developers, customer service staffers, and a finance department.
But go through another door, and you’re in a high-ceilinged industrial space. Here, 10 apprentices are toting lumber, measuring walls, and hanging sheetrock. But this crew is part of a 12-week program that teaches the basics of construction and pays them $15 per hour as they learn.
Founded in late 2020, Forge is a startup that runs a new kind of trade school but also seeks to employ the graduates. And the company has raised nearly $28 million, some of it from the Miami-based homebuilder Lennar Corp., to train more workers and expand to a second city, likely Tampa. Founder Mark Kasdorf says his goal is to employ 100,000 people in 10 years.
Kasdorf thinks that can happen by creating a new kind of “on-ramp” to the construction trades for so-called Generation Z workers just now entering their twenties.
“The types of employers in the trades today are incompatible with Gen Z, from big builders like Suffolk to the union to a 65-year-old operator of a plumbing general contracting company. They don’t like Gen Z, and Gen Z doesn’t like them.” Kasdorf says nearly one-third of Forge’s graduates so far have been women. “They’ll tell you that there’s no on-ramps for them,” he says. “There’s a lot of disenfranchised groups that don’t really have access to a career in the trades.”
Kasdorf sold a previous company, Intrepid Labs, to the consulting giant Accenture in 2017; it had focused on creating mobile apps for clients, and was bringing in $25 million in annual revenue, he says. When Kasdorf left Accenture to start Forge, he raised money from Boston Seed Capital and was focusing on creating technology for “augmented reality” glasses. The idea was that if you had on a pair of glasses with built-in cameras, speakers, and a microphone — and which could overlay videos and digital imagery on what you were looking at — on-call experts could talk you through how to fix something in your house, or assemble a new piece of furniture.
But as Kasdorf started to think about where he’d find those experts, he says he realized that “we’re running out of skilled tradespeople in the US,” especially as an older generation begins to retire.
The company changed its focus in February 2021, to “building a private trade school where we’re training the next generation of trades worker for America,” he says, and surrounding them with technology like those augmented reality glasses.
Forge is starting small, with classes of about 10 apprentices who are recruited from postings on the website Indeed, or through Forge employees’ personal network. One early student, Nick Claude, was managing a bar in Hingham when he heard about the opportunity from a customer who worked for Forge. Claude says he “had wanted to get into the trades, but it felt like ‘who do you know?’ You needed to find someone to take you on as an apprentice.” He reached out to 30 or 40 tradespeople, but found “many weren’t willing to take on strangers they don’t know.”
The 12-week program has students build their own workbench, and then they move on to working on simulated houses, learning how to frame a house, install roofing, and add flashing. They install tile and faux-wood flooring and learn to hang sheetrock, plaster walls, and add molding. Kasdorf says about 70 percent of the apprentices finish the program and move into paid positions with Forge, earning $21 an hour and health insurance. (Forge guarantees them 32 hours a week of work.)
The company sends its alumni out on window replacement jobs, or one-day bathroom refits, typically subcontracting for a larger brand. On the day I visited Forge in early November, Kasdorf said there were four window crews and one bathroom crew out in the field, each with two or three workers. His goal was to have 10 crews working by January.
Forge also buys houses in the Boston area, dispatches crews to renovate them, and then flips them. The company seeks to buy $300,000 to $400,000 starter homes that it can resell for $600,000. He says that the worse shape a house is in, the better it is for Forge: “We want houses that need a lot of labor — it’s more training opportunities for our people.”
In 2022, Forge has acquired seven properties, mainly in Framingham, Natick, and Wayland, Kasdorf says. He expects to double that number in 2023, though house-flipping “should still be less than 10 percent of our revenue.” (Buying and selling houses when sales volume is dropping and mortgage rates are rising can be tricky, of course.)
Using technology is still part of the picture, Kasdorf says. Twice a day, at noon and 4 p.m., someone on each crew dons an augmented reality headset for a quality check. That allows a supervisor at the office in Newton to “see” the work that has been done remotely, ask questions, and address any problems that have cropped up. (That video is also kept as a record of the work done on a specific site.)
Forge has a long way to go to show that it can profitably train and employ thousands of tradespeople. (At present, the company has 90 employees.) But it is working on a major problem — there were more than 400,000 open jobs nationally in construction in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a recent article from McKinsey & Co. highlighted “a persistent labor shortfall” in the sector that could become even worse in the wake of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will funnel billions into new transportation projects.
Forge plans to start running two classes of apprentices simultaneously in December, and three next year. That would have it training 20 to 30 people at a time.
But compare that scale to the programs run by the North Atlantic State’s Carpenters Training Fund, an affiliate of the carpenters’ union. In Massachusetts, it runs an apprenticeship program that serves 1,200 people at sites in Millbury and Dorchester, according to executive director Tom Fischer. They receive 160 hours of free training each year, over the course of a four-year apprenticeship. And there are other “pre-apprenticeship” programs like Build It, Job Corps, and Building Pathways, designed to provide a gateway into the field.
“The demand is strong” for people with skills in carpentry and other trades, says Fischer, adding that he would never knock a new training initiative like Forge: “Any training is a positive thing.”