Quality Internship

Matthew Yglesias defense Qualify Coffee’s “coffee roaster internship” program:

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.

He makes a good point. I wonder the extent to which the calculus is so skewed that they won’t be looking for people to pay for the privilege of interning as a coffee roaster.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. I read on a center-left British Blog called Harry’s Place. They focus a lot on labor issues. Apparently in the United Kingdom, workplaces are advertising for internships that you pay for. These aren’t at prestigious businesses either. They are at local, small businesses. I’ll look for the link latter.

    Matt Yglesias is wrong on this. Internships already give too much advantage to young people whose parents can and will subsidize them before they get a salary. Its why the stereotypical intern is a young woman from an upper-middle class or above background. Having people pay for internship makes things worse.

    • Actually, this is nothing like an ‘internship’. It’s eight hours — TOTAL — spread over several meetings, so it’s probably something like four two-hour meetings.

      In which they taste coffee, learn to brew coffee, and basically get training. Yeah, they don’t get paid for that eight hours. OTOH, it’s only eight hours and when it’s done, even if they don’t get hired they’ll have actually learned useful stuff to go onto a resume.

      Admittedly, I’m assuming these are high school or college kids looking for a part-time job — so eight hours of unpaid training isn’t a bad investment.

      • If i had an “internship” at a coffee place and wasn’t hired i wouldn’t be putting it on my resume. It’s not really training, its an extended job interview. Why would you put on a resume all the interviews where you weren’t hired.

        • When you’re young, or lack experience relevant to the industry, you put anything on your resume that you can find. Even if it’s just a workshop you attended (which is what I would liken this to).

          If I was applying to work at a coffee place, I’d absolutely put it somewhere on my resume or at least my cover letter, if I had no other experience working at a coffee place.

          • I don’t think you put things on a resume that make you look bad. If you didn’t get hired after the 8 hours that looks to me like the employer didn’t think you would be a good employee. It would be analogous to working at a place than getting fired after a week. It just looks like a failed long interview to me, more than training.

          • I don’t think, given the nature of the internship, it does look bad. It’s not the same as being hired and then fired. They intern eight people and hire two, you weren’t one of the people, that’s different from being given a slot and losing it.

          • It all depends on how you reference it on your resume. I think it would be rather easy to describe in a way that it didn’t look like a failed job interview (though it’d be even easier to write it in a way that it did look like a failed job interview).

          • Yeah, you’d reference it as “8 hour seminar on coffee” and add in some buzzwords indicating it was all about proper, high-class brewing and types of brews and specialty coffees, etc.

            Basically it says, to any other coffee shop you apply to, “I am actual familiar with more types of coffee than what my parents drink and whatever my go-to choice at Starbucks is, and have actually tried the complicated machinery and am well on my way to being a true coffee snob, so I have promise and interest as a barrista”.

      • As internships go, this one is rather harmless. You get 8 hours of training in coffee roasting so it does seem more like an extensive training period or long-interview. Though this raises the question of why not describe it as such? Then we would not be squabbling about the issue.

        Though there is a lot of abuse in the Internship system that I wonder why this one picked up the heat out of all others.

        • If it is, that’s just BS and internship abuse, as per usual. If it’s a single 8-hour class, then no biggie.

        • Wow. This is either very unclear or ridiculous. My guess is they will hire you at some point although they don’t say when which they really should clarify.

          Applicants should:

          Have a deep and abiding interest in coffee as a natural product.
          Be available to work at least 3 days a week. including some weekends.
          Be willing to commit at least one year to working for the company.

          • It’s clear that

            Be available to work at least 3 days a week. including some weekends.

            means after you’re hired.

    • I swear I wrote a post on this, but Google is failing me. I have mixed feelings about the push towards internships. There is a definite class element, as you point out, but the notion of paying to learn a trade is not new.

      • In the past, the master was required to provide board, clothing, and food to his apprentices and they actually learned something useful. These days none of the above is provided and a lot of what interns do is minimal.

  2. In the 90’s, there were a bunch of laws passed to protect “permacontractors”. The law said something to the effect of “if you are a contractor for more than 2 years, the company has to hire you”.

    This resulted in a bunch of 18-month contracts, followed by managers giving off-the-record talks about going on unemployment for 6 1/2 months (“buy a playstation”) and be ready to get hired again.

    So more laws were passed to protect contractors and my company ceased to provide contractors to businesses but “managed service contracts”.

    So more laws were passed to protect managed service employees and everything got outsourced to Singapore.

    As such, I look at this policy and I see a company that can’t afford to fire people who don’t work out in the first few weeks.

    • I doubt DC is a right-to-work…district-thingy…but seriously? You honestly look at this and think “This is obviously because the government has made it impossible to fire people”.

      A part-time coffee monkey job. I think your ideology is blinding you here. It’s not even a union gig. It’s a freaking coffee brewing job staffed by college kids.

      • You honestly look at this and think “This is obviously because the government has made it impossible to fire people”.

        No, I honestly look at this and think “this strikes me as being fairly new and novel and it makes me wonder why they’re going this route to find a new employee than the ways that were around when I was fresh outta school?”

        Why would they decide “to train first and see who does the best job of taking to the training” before offering that person a job?

        My conclusion was “incentives”.

        Why do you think that they’re doing this?

        • Because unemployment is ridiculously high and they can? If it’s just an eight hour class — to identify the ones worth training. if it’s a year’s unpaid internship, because they can.

          It’s not because of nefarious over-regulations or mean ole’ unions, it’s the free market in all it’s bloody glory. They can do it because it’s legal, because it costs them nothing, and because there are currently plenty of people desperate for work.

          I don’t need to make speculative leaps to intrusive government and regulatory hurdles that may or may not exist, when the plain fact of the matter is cutting payroll costs — without cutting workers — is always a plus for the bottom line.

          • What Morat said: unemployment, especially among young people and recent college grads, is high enough that people don’t have to pay trainees.

          • Plus a coffee internship would probably count as a “glamor” job to the right kind of person/hipster. We are in a renaissance of seeing smaller coffee companies like Bluebottle, Stumptown, Sight Glass, Four Barrel, etc. Coffee is a hip product now.

          • Morat, they’re going to be hiring a couple of these people. While I’m certain (seriously!) that the state of unemployment is making this a possibility as well, I can’t help but also note the costs of hiring the wrong person and then firing them and then hiring another person.

            I mean, it seems likely to me that pluses to the bottom line are the difference between hiring someone and not hiring someone in this economy. Pluses to the bottom line are the difference between staying open for another few months or not.

          • There have always been internships, as in “We’re not hiring you for good — we’re hiring you for a limited period only to see how you work out, and only the best of the group are ging to get real offers.” The question is what compensation if any is paid during the internship? The answer, more and more often, is “none”, and that’s purely supply and demand. The incentive argument is, frankly, silly: there has never been, nor is there now, any obligation to the interns after the training period ends.

          • The answer, more and more often, is “none”, and that’s purely supply and demand.

            I see nothing, whatsoever, to disagree with.

            If there are more and more laws that deal with hiring/firing people and what obligations an employer has to the people who have been hired/fired, what effect would this tend to have on “demand”?

            For the life of me, I can easily the the “solution” to the internship problem being “we need to make unpaid internships illegal!”

          • There are no laws whatsoever that would prevent hiring an intern at minimum wage for a fixed period with no obligation of any kind beyond that. The end of the period doesn’t even count as a firing.

          • I was under the impression that “laying people off” will raise your unemployment insurance payments and hiring people for a fixed period counts as a layoff when their end-date comes.

            Is this not the case?

          • I recall that when I was in school and had summer jobs, I was considered a casual rather than a regular employee.


            The term casual employee is not a familiar one to many Americans. Instead we tend to see the terms “temporary worker” or “independent contractor” instead. Defining what this type of employee is can get somewhat confusing, since the term can differ from country to country.

            In the US, the term casual employee is often used in universities. It refers to people, often students, who work less than 1,000 hours per 12-month calendar year, on an irregular, infrequent, or “as-needed” basis.” Because the worker doesn’t work regularly, he or she does not usually have access to benefits like worker’s compensation, disability, company retirement plans, or health insurance.

            That should apply to interns as well.

      • No, it’s not a ‘coffee brewing job staffed by college kids.’

        It’s a coffee roasting job. Which, while not being difficult, required odd skills; particularly a sense of smell/palette to detect subtle changes in the beans as they roast. These skills are absolutely essential if the roaster will also be blending.

        While I’m not sure how I feel about the internships, I can see the need for a way to screen applicants, because not matter how much you love coffee, if you can’t tell the difference between a fruity Central-American coffee and a chocolatey African coffee, you are not qualified to be a coffee roaster.

        • None of that makes the leap to “Because it’s too darn hard to fire people these days”.

          • I owned a coffee shop; and we specialized in single-origin beans; beans from a specific farms. It took about four hours of training over a couple of days (the nose needs a break,) for me to be able to tell if any employee would be able to do some parts of the job. If I could have found a way to tell this beforehand, I (and the people I hired) would have been a whole lot better off.

            So I’m not sure the leap is ‘hard to fire,’ so much as ‘expensive to hire.’ A new-hire that doesn’t work out is a lot of sunk time and expense that’s wasted.

          • Why wouldn’t they hire people with prior experience?

          • People with prior experince do not have to be trained but at the same time, they are more likely to demand a higher starting salary and benefits. Its easier to train a new person, that way you can have them start on a lower salary and with fewer benefits. In some cases, you might even be able to get some work out of them before you start paying them.

          • I figured it was along those lines.

            So what you have is companies cutting costs multiple times over.

            Generally speaking, your options are to hire someone at a lower salary but spend additional time and resources training them and take a higher risk that they do not work out -OR- hire someone at a higher salary who will need less training and who will lower your risk of not working out.

            But why accept the consequences of your choices when you can exploit a dwindling job market to have your cake and eat it to by hiring low salaried people who will consider their training unpaid? WAHOO!

            Note: I’m not necessarily arguing that there should be any laws to prevent these actions. But we should consider shaming these people for the dirtiness of their deeds.

            Now, how long before someone chimes in by saying I hate unskilled people because I don’t want to see them get jobs?

            Note #2: I don’t. I have no qualm with either approach, one of which involves hiring unskilled people. I just think that, ethically, that shifts the burden of training to the employer.

          • Kazzy, some of my best employees had prior experience.

            But sometimes there’s nobody available to hire with the experience or skill you need. And sometimes prior experience may not indicate someone has the sensory acuity for some jobs; else there would not be so many burnt-milk/overdrawn espressos served in so many coffee shops.

          • LeeEsq,

            I disagree that people with prior experience don’t have to be trained. Every new employee needs to be trained on the details of working in your business. Sometimes, you have to do extensive retraining; breaking them of destructive or sloppy habits from prior employment.

            The benefit is that they have some industry experience, some familiarity with the language of the business; they may have some worthwhile insights that might help improve your business. But they will need training, 100% of the time.

    • I worked at a software company that learned the hard way that if you hire a contractor but treat him like an employee, the courts may just decide that he actually is an employee.

      The end result was that they did something similar to what you’re talking about. You worked for 12 months, then had to take 90 days off.

      (There was another group of people where the distinction between employee and contractor was made by the “contractor” supplying his own equipment. Which his agency would lease from the employer. It was all kind of goofy.)

      • I only work ten months, then take a month “off”, working remotely.

  3. Which his agency would lease from the employer.

    This sounds a bit like my regular job. Okay, more than a bit. A lot.

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