Have You Heard The One About The Coffee Roasting Internship? It’s Actually Totally Reasonable

Learning how to operate a coffee roaster like this one isn’t an internship. It’s more like a long job interview.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

For the past 24 hours or so, I’ve seen a lot of snarking on twitter about a coffee shop up in Washington DC’s Petwoth neighborhood that’s offering a “coffee roasting internship”. Companies will do anything these days to find and exploit free labor! And how sick must the labor market be if people expect anyone to take such a job?

Except if you read the description it actually sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea that’s being ruined by the use of the term “internship” (emphasis added):

We are currently seeking roasting interns to train under our owner and roastmaster. This is an unpaid internship, but not free labor. You will receive a comprehensive coffee education, including lectures and tasting sessions in addition to an hour or two of roaster training. The coffee you roast will not be sold to customers. You will also have access to a copious amount of free coffee. The purpose of the internship is to both educate participants as well as to serve as a talent search. At the end of the internship, which will last approximately eight hours spread over several sessions, one or two interns will be offered paid part-time roasting positions to start.

This is what I think we should call “training” and a “job search”. Qualia Coffee, it seems, is looking to hire one or two part-time coffee roasters. The problem is that there isn’t some large pool of skilled coffee roasters lying around. But as I’ve emphasized many times in the past, this kind of “skills mismatch” can’t explain prolonged spells of unemployment. When you have a healthy labor market (and, indeed, in the DC metro area the unemployment rate is just 5.2 percent) employers will overcome skills mismatch by training workers. And that’s what Qualia is doing here. They’re running an 8-hour coffee roasting training program that’s simultaneously a job search.

Their calculus is that, rather than picking who to hire first and then train them, it makes more sense to train first and see who does the best job of taking to the training. It’s not obvious to me that Qualia’s theory is correct, but it’s not obvious to me that Qualia’s theory is wrong either. The problem of identifying the right job candidate when you know the candidate doesn’t have the skills you want is a difficult one, and it’s appropriate that different firms will have different ideas about how to deal with it.

The world of internships contains a lot of nonsense and shenanigans, but this isn’t on that list. They just shouldn’t have called what amounts to a long job interview an unpaid internship.