My guest today is Thomas Brunskill. He’s co-founder and CEO of Forage, an open-access platform where professionals can learn about new careers and skills by participating in virtual work experience programs.
In this episode, we discuss what these virtual work experience programs are, how they differ from internships or traditional learning platforms, and, most importantly, how people interested in new careers can use Forage to change their lives. We also talk about how companies can find talented people who want to do cool things in the world of work without necessarily attending four-year universities.
Thomas started Forage in Australia but has since moved its headquarters to the U.S. Forage focuses on the divide so familiar to many of us — the gap between the world of learning and the world of work.
“I think it’s a problem that most people understand, which is, how do I find my first job? What are those resources that can help me make informed, deliberate career decisions? That’s what we’re focused on solving at Forage,” he shares.
And by working with organizations such as Boston Consulting Group and Walmart, Tom and his team have already transformed the work experience for many professionals.
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Redefining Work Experience Programs
Forage is a platform designed to improve the virtual learning experience, and it’s especially focused on new professionals. But it’s a platform that has no barriers to entry and no credential requirements.
We need to think differently about career pathways beyond four-year college degrees, Thomas says, and Forage’s inclusive approach encourages people to explore and experiment..
“If you were a candidate and you wanted to build skills, road-test different careers, build experience, you’d jump onto the Forage website and you’d see a catalog of different job simulations, is what we call them,” he says.
People who use this platform can experience what it would be like working in a certain career and even what it’s like at some companies — effectively bringing the internship experience into a virtual interactive space.
Tom explains, “The whole idea is, how do you bring the internship experience or the junior employee experience and turn it into a bite-size online interactive experience so that you can road test those different careers before you actually reach the recruitment process?”
Virtual Work Experiences: A New Beginning
This world is becominging more virtual in a variety of ways. The metaverse is expanding, allowing people to have new experiences that, at their best, can feel quite real. Tom understands that making these experiences feel very real isn’t an easy task.
“We’re always thinking, how do you make our experiences as lifelike as they possibly can? The first place to start is, you can never totally bridge that gap,” he says. “Nothing beats in-person internship experience, right? We don’t pretend that we can replace that, but we do think that this is a much better way to figure out where you do want to start your career than doing nothing at all.”
Forage learned early on that companies using their platform must be as honest as possible when communicating the actual work. Thomas finds that companies that realistically depict their workplaces create higher-quality learning experiences. By being realistic, they allow the students to make informed, deliberate career decisions.
“There are lots of different benchmarks that we use to ensure that our programs aren’t gimmicky, that they’re having real impact on the candidates and are resulting in great outcomes for our partner employees, who are ultimately the ones who pay for our products, given that it’s free for students,” he says.
Road Testing For the Career Meant For You
While Forage is focused on being the “connective tissue between the world of learning and the world of work,” the company is also disrupting the traditional internship practices. Like many of us graduating college, Thomas didn’t feel prepared for the world of work. He was left to his own devices, but he knows many people struggle to find their way. That’s where Forage comes in.
“The idea behind Forage was — I think we’ve popularized this myth that early talent, in the early parts of your career, you need to go through a bit of misery, right?” he explains. “You need to do a couple of jobs until you figure out what you actually like to do. That doesn’t make sense to me. Why can’t we actually make a more informed, deliberate career decision and short-circuit that process to finding the job that truly aligns with your superpowers and your passions?”
Instead of following the historical path of hiring first and training second, Forage is determined to change that process to make it more effective for businesses and professionals. “We think that companies can be training candidates at scale — first through software and then hiring them second,” Thomas shares. “That allows candidates to road test different careers and make those more informed, deliberate career decisions so that they end up in the roles which do align with their superpowers and their passions earlier on.”
Forage is ultimately about encouraging discovery for people in their career journey. “That’s the genesis behind Forage — how do you make that career discovery process a lot more effective for the candidate and also for the employer who has a lot to gain from attracting the right talent to the right roles?”'Why can’t we actually make a more informed, deliberate career decision and short-circuit that process to finding the job that truly aligns with your superpowers and your passions?' ~ @BrunskillTom, co-founder of @theforage_. Tune in to #PunkRockHR! Click To Tweet
People in This Episode
This episode of Punk Rock HR is sponsored by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to thestarrconspiracy.com.
Hey, everybody. I’m Laurie Ruettimann. Welcome back to Punk Rock HR. My guest today is Tom Brunskill. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Forage. Forage is an open-access platform. Anybody can go on there and learn about new careers, learn new skills by participating in virtual work experience programs. This is a learning platform. And on today’s show, Tom and I talk about Forage. We discuss what these virtual work experience programs are, how they differ from internships or traditional learning platforms. But more importantly, how people who are interested in new careers can use a site like Forage to really turn their lives around and how companies can find talented people who want to do cool things in the world of work, who aren’t necessarily in four-year university programs.
It’s a really neat platform. It’s a great idea. It’s a booming company, and I’m lucky to have Tom on today to talk about one of my favorite topics, which is learning. So if you’re passionate about learning, if you’re passionate about creating more diverse talent pipelines, well, sit back and enjoy this conversation with Tom Brunskill on today’s Punk Rock HR.
Hey, Tom, welcome to the show.
Awesome to be here. Super excited to chat to you, Laurie.
Well, I’m pleased to have you here because you’re immersed in the world of one of my favorite topics, which is learning. So before we start to talk about all that, why don’t you tell everybody who you are and what you’re all about?
So I’ll try to keep it short and sweet, that I’m the CEO and co-founder of a company called Forage. You can probably tell from my accent, I’m not initially from the U.S. I moved to the U.S. a couple of years ago. Forage is originally an Australian company, but we’re now headquartered here in the U.S. What we’re focused on at Forage is how to bridge the gap between the world of learning and the world of work. I think it’s a problem that most people understand, which is, how do I find my first job? What are those resources that can help me make informed deliberate career decisions? That’s what we’re focused on solving at Forage.
The specific way we do that is we work with, typically large companies, to create free, open-access, online training courses for college students to road test different roles in different careers before they actually get to the recruitment process. So you think about companies like BCG, Lululemon, Walmart. We work with those companies to create interactive courses that allow you to experience what it’s like to work with those companies and build skills and visibility so you can make better career decisions.
Well, I want to talk about all of that, especially the focus on young professionals, new and emerging workers, but first I want to talk about exactly what Forage is, because you’re a platform, you’re a solution, right? So what is it? What is this virtual learning environment?
Well, I find it’s often useful to think about analogous experiences or products. So if you think about a Coursera, or a Udacity or even a Netflix, it’s an equivalent user experience at Forage. So if you were a candidate and you wanted to build skills, road test different careers, build experience, you’d jump onto the Forage website, and you’d see a catalog of different job simulations, is what we call them. So there might be the Walmart data science simulation, the BCG strategy consulting job simulation, the Lululemon marketing job simulation. As a candidate, there is no cost or barrier to enroll in these simulations. You simply enroll.
Then you go through a self-paced, self-guided curriculum that allows you to experience, at a very granular level, what it’s like to work at that particular company. So for example, if you enrolled in our Electronic Arts software engineering job simulation, you’d be learning how to build a fictional game called Vax Man. You’d be learning how to use C++ and Python as you develop that game. You’d be learning how to mitigate cybersecurity risks as you develop that game, how to work with other stakeholders in the business and ultimately launch that game. The whole idea is, how do you bring the internship experience or the junior employee experience and turn it into a bite-size online interactive experience so that you can road test those different careers before you actually reach the recruitment process?
Well, I’m so excited to learn a little bit more about that. So I am a student in a traditional university, right? That’s where I learn about Forage. What if I’m not in a traditional university? Do I still have the opportunity to take part in these virtual work experiences, this learning platform?
Yes. So there are no barriers to access to our simulations. Absolutely anyone can enroll. As I said, they’re entirely free, and it’s actually really important. We typically work with large corporate professional service firms, and our perspective at Forage is that we focus typically on entry-level roles, but right now we think there’s an addiction from corporate America to hiring just from the four-year college degree. So it’s really important to us that employees think more holistically about where early talent can come from and actually start to create a tapestry of different pathways into the world of work, whether that’s through community colleges, boot camps, corporate apprenticeship programs, other kind of upskilling and reskilling programs, as well as the four-year college degree. In that sense, that’s why our programs are available to any candidate. We proactively educate and encourage our corporate partners to look beyond talent in the four-year college degree, particularly as they look to build workforces which are truly reflective of the diversity within society. That’s also particularly important to us.
So do people actually get hired from this experience, or is this one of many things they can do before they enter the recruitment process?
Yeah, so I think what’s unique about Forage compared to a Coursera or Udacity or Udemy or other online learning experiences is that Forage’s job simulations are meant to be a pathway into employment. Now that’s not to say that if you do our programs, you are guaranteed employment, given that we have just so many people. We’ve had almost 3 million candidates go through our programs in the last two years. So obviously not all of them get hired by our corporate partners, but we do track the data from our corporate partners as to how many they’re hiring from our programs. They’re typically hiring — somewhere between 30 and 50% of the entry-level hires they make each year are coming from students that have enrolled in a completing Forage’s job simulations.
What’s particularly pleasing to see is that most of those students are coming from schools or higher ed institutions that employer historically hasn’t interacted with. So it’s not about getting the same students from the same schools into the same organizations. It’s about, how do you let employees really open their doors to a broad, diverse and relevant audience and showcase that talent and get them into the door? Actually be a pathway into employment, as opposed to just a learning experience which is designed to develop your own knowledge of the workforce or academia or whatever it is. This is meant to be a pathway into employment.
I really love the idea that Forage could be one tool to address the complexity around diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, right? Belonging. Do you find organizations are excited to use Forage as a tool to address some of their diversity, inclusion, accessibility, belonging and equity issues that they’re trying to fix in other ways? Is Forage the right tool for them?
So, first and foremost, there isn’t a silver bullet solution to DE&I, building workforces which are representative of society, but it’s been too slow. But we are seeing genuine excitement and genuine appetite to look outside of traditional areas of talent. That’s super-exciting. So a lot of our corporate partners that would never have hired outside of a four-year college degree are now hiring from community colleges, are now hiring from bootcamps, and those institutions disproportionately constitute the students that have been historically marginalized or overlooked. That’s fantastic to see. We talk to corporates all the time that they shouldn’t be doing this for altruistic reasons. They should be doing it because their job is to build better workforces and surprise, surprise, there is incredible talent outside of the 15 schools that they historically have always visited. They’re starting to see that.
And the way that we really focus on dispelling of any assumptions or prejudices that they might have towards talent that sits out those traditional schools is to actually allow that talent to build a portfolio of work and showcase their talent to an employer through these interactive job simulations. What we’re seeing is that employees are starting to index less those historical markers for success, like what school did you go to, what’s your GPA — things which are really artifacts of privilege, more than much else — and starting to look at the actual potential intent of a candidate, which we think is far more predictive of long-term success within an organization, rather than those historical markers.
I’m always fascinated by why people do what they do. You’re a bright guy. You’ve got aptitude. You’re an entrepreneur. You could be doing anything, right? You could be the next Elon Musk, and I think there’s a lot of pros and cons to that. But why Forage? What was it about this opportunity, this product, this idea that got you excited and keeps you getting up every morning focused on it.
So like most founders out there, the reason why we’re building Forage came from my co-founder and my own personal experience. And it may seem trite or cliche, but it was one of those situations where you’re incredibly frustrated with the process, and you think, this cannot be the best way of doing things. There has to be a better way.
What’s the process, right? Traditional internships, where people get in through privilege, they may or may not get paid, the internship may or may not be relevant or test your aptitude, or you may not learn, you may just get coffee, right? Is that what you were trying to disrupt?
Yeah, but I mean, really that connective tissue between the world of learning and the world of work, which was that the four-year college degree, in my experience, didn’t prepare me for the world of work and didn’t really give me a compass to understand where it was that I should start my career. So I was really left to my own devices to figure that out, and most people don’t have their own devices to figure that out. So the idea behind Forage was — I think we’ve popularized this myth, that early talent, in the early parts of your career, you need to go through a bit of misery, right? You need to do a couple of jobs until you figure out what you actually like to do. That doesn’t make sense to me. Why can’t we actually make a more informed, deliberate career decision and short-circuit that process to finding the job that truly aligns with your superpowers and your passions?
So the idea behind Forage is that the way that recruitment has historically worked, which is hire first, train second, doesn’t make a ton of sense. We think that companies can be training candidates at scale — first through software and then hiring them second. That allows candidates to road test different careers and make those more informed, deliberate career decisions so that they end up in the roles which do align with their superpowers and their passions earlier on. They’re not having to go through that misery. So that’s really the problem, the frustration with the process that we found. I was a corporate attorney when I finished law school and absolutely hated it. I based that decision of watching “Suits” and “Boston Legal” — poor proxy for a career choice.
Yeah, that’s the genesis behind Forage — how do you make that career discovery process a lot more effective for the candidate and also for the employer, who has a lot to gain from attracting the right talent to the right roles?
There’s this emerging world of everything going virtual, right? Everything’s on the metaverse, all of this is taking place in this different dimension, and a lot of the experiences feel very real, and other experiences are total garbage, right? Depending on where you are, what the technology is. I just wonder how you create and craft these virtual learning experiences? They’re basically virtual internships, right? So how are you doing it to make sure that it’s relevant, high-quality and is a good use of everybody’s time?
It’s super-hard. It’s super-hard.
We’re always thinking how do you make our experiences as lifelike as they possibly can? The first place to start is you can never totally bridge that gap. Nothing beats in person internship experience, right? We don’t pretend that we can replace that, but we do think that this is a much better way to figure out where you do want to start your career than doing nothing at all. I think some fundamental lessons we’ve learned in the process is that, from a company’s perspective, is be realistic as possible when you’re communicating the work that you do.
I remember in the early days we had some employers, some law firms, for example, who wanted to create job simulations which focused on the more experimental parts of their business. So how were they using the blockchain to automate smart contracts — things that junior talent weren’t actually doing when they walked in the door.
So we were like, “That actually isn’t a realistic depiction of what it’s like to work at your company. It’s in your interest to make that as realistic as possible so that students can make those informed deliberate career decisions.” But like most companies, we listen very closely to our users, to employers, to our partner universities, to ensure that the quality of these learning experiences are really high. We take a data-driven approach to looking at completion rates, hire-share rates, comparative success in the recruitment process of a Forager versus a non Forager. There are lots of different benchmarks that we use to ensure that our programs aren’t gimmicky, that they’re having real impact on the candidates, and are resulting in great outcomes for our partner employees, who are ultimately the ones who pay for our products, given that it’s free for students.
I just made an assumption in that previous question where I asked you about your platform, how you create these courses, and I assumed that these courses were in some sort of virtual reality framework, right? Is that true, or are they still 2D at this point?
Yeah, so really interesting. We have been experimenting with some 3D components, but most of the courses in the current format are 2D. So the idea is that you would be navigating a fictional hypothetical client scenario or work project, and you’d be receiving hypothetical video instructions from staff at that company who’d be telling you what to do, and you’d be downloading resources, and completing that work, and uploading the work to the platform. So a lot of the programs are 2D, but they’re highly interactive in nature, and they are designed to really mimic what the work environment looks like to the extent that you possibly can do that in a self-paced online environment.
So plans though, to start emerging and expanding into the 3D world, right? I mean, are they there? Is that what you’re thinking about, or are your customers and users not demanding that?
What we are really focused on is scale. How do you open the doors to candidates from all backgrounds and not have a limit? The question we asked ourselves in the early days was, how could you guarantee work experience at any company for any candidate and not have a cap on it? So that’s what our programs do. So if you looked at some of our bigger programs with JP Morgan, BCG, Citibank, Goldman Sachs — they’ve had four, five, 600,000 candidates go through those programs in the last two years. I think once you start introducing 3D components, like virtual reality, that comes at the expense of true accessibility because people just don’t have access to that type of technology. It starts to inhibit the scale. So we have been experimenting with it, but to be honest, where we’re more interested is where else can these job simulations be useful?
So not just in early talent. So for military personnel who are transitioning back into civilian life, the parents who have been out of the workforce who want to re-enter the workforce, the high school students that might not want to go to the four-year college, who might not have the means to go to a four-year college degree and want to do a corporate apprenticeship program. It’s figuring out where else is there information asymmetry between a candidate and an employer, and how can we use these job simulations to demystify what it’s like to work at that company so that candidates are making better career decisions and employers are attracting the right talent to the right roles within their organization?
Yeah. Well, I’m completely sold on the idea. I think it’s just absolutely brilliant. For me, I just wonder what’s next for you. You’re focused on expanding, going beyond traditional students. What does 2022 and 2023 look like for you as an organization?
I think when you’re an early-stage company — we’re now at 100 employees, we’ve got 150 corporate customers, 3 million students — there is a temptation to try and do a lot of things at once. As a company, we’re trying to remain really focused on what we know we’re good at and maximizing the impact that we’re having in that space, but when we do look forward to the things that might look different in the next couple of years, it is around the different types of candidates that might be engaging in our programs.
So, yeah, as I said, right now, we really just focus on early talent. So young people who are thinking about working in Fortune 500 and large professional service firms. That next phase for us is looking at people outside of early talent. So, as I mentioned, military personnel, parents, high school students, but also looking at the different types of companies that we can work with.
So right now, looking at the not-for-profits, NGOs. We would love to start creating job simulations for roles in government. If you think about the utility of our product from a candidate’s perspective, it’s about, how can I road test a bunch of different careers across different industries so I can make a better decision? And so in order to do that, we need to canvas a greater surface area of employers. Right now we’re really focused on corporate and professional service firms. So yeah, over the next few years, we really want to branch out beyond that.
I love that. I love the idea of expanding into the different aspects of the lines of business, but I think about any vendor trying to sell into the world of work, whether they’re selling into human resources or finance or procurement, and especially around learning, there is this old adage that “I don’t need somebody to know the job. I just need someone to have character. If they have character, I’ll take the responsibility of teaching them the job.” Do you hear that in your sales cycle and what do you think about that?
That’s a really good question. So first and foremost, we don’t pretend that our job simulations teach candidates everything they need to do a job. So it’s not like you do our job simulations and you can walk in on day one and hit the ground running, and we don’t hear that from customers. That’s not what they’re looking for. So there’s upskilling, reskilling, and what we’re focused on is preskilling. And why that’s important — it’s about, how do you give candidates, the resources, the guidance, the support to make informed deliberate career decisions. So what we believe is that, if you can give candidates a way to dip their toes in the water and test out these different careers before committing to one, they can make a much more informed choice about which career aligns with their skills and interests. So that when they end up in the role, they’ve got a sense of what they’re walking into and they’re more likely to stick around, become a contributor over a sustained period of time.
Whereas with a lot of our customers, what they’re doing is they’re hiring two [thousand], 3000 interns a year per customer, and then hiring them into entry level roles only for 70% of those hires to leave within the first three years of starting at that organization. So the way that companies compensate for that is, they hire 70% more than they need, knowing that 70% are going to leave, which is just, honestly, a really dumb way of doing things.
So it’s not about how do you get students completely ready for the job, but how do you allow candidates to have the tools and resources to make a more informed career decision so that they’re more likely to end up in a role which aligns with their skills and interest, which employers ultimately benefit from because they have lower attrition rates downstream. And they have happier employees that are more engaged with the work that they’re doing because they’ve ended up where they wanted to end up.
Well, Tom, I’m really betting on this. I think it’s such a brilliant idea, giving people that experience and helping them to make more informed decisions. Creating a more diverse, more interesting, more talented talent pool in and of itself is also cool. You’re coming at it from really awesome angles on both sides. I wish you nothing but the best. If people want to learn more about you and your organization, where can they go?
They can visit our website, which is www.theforage.com, or you can find me on LinkedIn. My name is Thomas Brunskill. You can follow Forage on LinkedIn. We have quite an active LinkedIn following amount, but all of our website, all of our resources are completely free and open access. So anyone can go on and explore this content, whether you’re a student or not.
Well, I consider myself to be a lifelong student, so maybe I’ll go check out my options as a data scientist. What do you think about that?
You can enroll into our KPMG data science program, our Walmart data science program. There’s a lot of data science programs out there.
Oh my God. I know I’m definitely not getting hired for any of those jobs. Tom, it was really great to connect with you today. Thanks again for being a guest on Punk Rock HR.
Thank you for having me, love the conversation.
Hey, everybody. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Punk Rock HR. We are proudly underwritten by the Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to the starrconspiracy.com. Punk Rock HR is produced and edited by Rep Cap with special help from Michael Thibodeaux and Devon McGrath. For more information, show notes, links and resources, head on over to punkrockhr.com. Now that’s all for today and I hope you enjoyed it. We’ll see you next time on Punk Rock HR.