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For low-income workers, a chance to learn new skills without paying a dime upfront

Jeo Tovar, a 35-year-old father of three in Dorchester, formerly worked as a fitness coach and personal trainer. He has finished a user experience design course, focused on the look and feel of software. “There’s no way I’m going back into a gym,” he said.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

If white-collar employees develop a serious work-from-home habit in the post-pandemic world, what happens to the cleaners and dishwashers and taxi drivers who relied on these people coming in to the office? If online shopping becomes the norm, how will store clerks make a living?

A national pilot program by a Boston nonprofit aims to address these looming questions by training low-income people for in-demand jobs without requiring them to pay a dime upfront — and only requiring them to foot the bill if and when they start earning decent money.

The Social Finance initiative could provide a lifeline to the many workers with lower education levels who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Some may never get their jobs back, if, as some economists expect, COVID has a permanent effect on the labor market.


Of the hundreds of thousands of people who have filed for unemployment in Massachusetts over the course of the pandemic, three-quarters of them have been low-wage workers — many of them Black or Latino, according to state data.

Going back to school may not be a viable option. But the Social Finance pilot, along with a number of job training programs that have recently emerged or expanded, could help meet their needs.

Nearly 500 students nationwide, including 22 in Massachusetts — all of whom qualify for public benefits, have poor credit, or have a criminal record — have taken part in the Social Finance program, enrolling in four-month tech courses provided by the training firm General Assembly. During the program, participants have access to a social worker, a job coach, and emergency funds for food, housing, or child care.

If they don’t find a job making at least $40,000 a year, they don’t have to repay the $15,000 tuition.

Among the first round of students — about 60 percent of whom are people of color — was Jeo Tovar, a 35-year-old Latino father of three in Dorchester who formerly worked as a fitness coach and personal trainer and just finished the program’s user experience design course, focused on the look and feel of software. “There’s no way I’m going back into a gym,” said Tovar, who briefly ran his own online training business and had been contemplating working at a fitness center again before the pandemic hit.


Previously, Tovar made only about $30,000 a year and didn’t have the money to pay for the technology course “in any shape, way, or form,” he said. Salaries for the jobs he’s been looking at now start around twice what he used to make, and though Tovar admits to being intimidated by jobs that seem to require a “magician,” he’s excited by the possibilities. “I kicked that door wide open,” he said, laughing. “There’s no stopping me now.”

More than half the jobs in the labor market don’t require a college degree, but the cost of training needed for many of them is still out of reach for many people, said Tracy Palandjian chief executive and cofounder of Social Finance.

The training is funded by “career impact bonds,” drawn from a $40 million fund provided by philanthropic investors who care more about making a difference than getting rich, Palandjian said. Investors face a risk if students don’t find jobs and are unable to pay what they owe, but they also get the reward of seeing the good their money is doing, via a quarterly report detailing job-placement rates and average earnings.


Instead of traditional loans, these programs use income-share agreements that are repaid based on future salaries, with graduates earning higher wages subsidizing the cost for those not working or making less. Graduates making at least $40,000 a year pay back 10 percent of their salary for 48 months, or until they reach a cap of $22,500. The hope is that a large share of participants become high enough earners to compensate for those who don’t have to pay — and to generate a modest return for investors.

The Social Finance effort is the first national program using this model to focus solely on people who are low-income or face barriers to education or employment, Palandjian said.

“This is hopefully a tool to help people take that reskilling journey with no risk to them,” she said. “And they only repay if their lives are much better than before.”

The General Assembly courses are the first of a dozen planned programs to train people as diesel mechanics, medical technologists, and for positions in other growing professions. Along with investors, the training programs also bear some risk. General Assembly gets half of the training cost upfront, and only gets the rest if the student gets a job and repays what is owed.

“Their success depends on the student success, which means they better be confident that their program works,” Palandjian said, noting that the median salary for previous General Assembly scholarship recipients, more than 90 percent of whom landed jobs, is $58,000 a year.


If the pandemic permanently reduces the need for jobs in food service, cleaning, hospitality, retail, and other industries concentrated in downtown areas, the need for affordable training programs like these will surely grow.

The pandemic could “change the texture of urban life,” said David Autor, an MIT economist who has written about the shifting post-COVID employment landscape. “For people who do a lot of laying on of hands, it’s not good news, especially if the demand for their services effectively comes from people leaving their homes.”

In recent years, vocational training has improved for adults “thrown out” of their jobs, said Tamar Jacoby, president of the Washington economic mobility nonprofit Opportunity America, with a greater emphasis on labor market demands and partnerships with employers.

Income-sharing agreements are still unproven, Jacoby said, but the time is right for innovation, especially when considering the rise of automation coupled with pandemic-induced job loss. “The robots are pretty soon going to be doing the routine jobs,” she said.

Colin Brine, 35, had been “skating by” working as an armored car driver, a commissary clerk in a prison, and a call center tech support worker. He had considered General Assembly’s software engineering program before, and when COVID put an abrupt end to his IT temp job, he took another look. Paying for it out of pocket wasn’t an option, but the Social Finance bond opened the door. “This is my Hail Mary,” Brine, who lives in Bolton, remembers thinking.


In June, Brine graduated, and after applying for 73 jobs, he landed a remote job at VineSpring, a Sonoma, Calif.-based e-commerce platform for wineries and breweries. He’s still in tech support but at a more advanced level, accessing databases and reading code — and making substantially more than he used to.

“This was my ticket to set things right,” he said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.