Of course there's an unpaid coffee-roasting internship; of course Matthew Yglesias is defending it at Slate.
Anyway, Yglesias is completely right that from the perspective of a company, it's better to hire employees you know will pan out. It's better not to pay for any time spent training or weeding out prospects. It's also better for the company to ask for a long-term commitment - these interns Yglesias writes about are asked to "Be willing to commit at least one year to working for the company" - a company that has yet to pay them a cent. Sure, the company's hiring process ultimately contributes to its profits, but technically speaking, you the first-day employee aren't adding much and might indeed be taking away.
But! That's just one part of the equation. There are also the interests of the would-be employee, and the cost of that person's time. If you're showing up for work at a job you're almost certain to be fired from after a trial period (yes, better eight hours than eight months), what's in it for you? Training in coffee-roasting, evidently. (While it's generous of this company to provide free coffee classes, the relevant comparison here isn't the kind of coffee classes yuppies might pay for as a hobby, but the paid on-the-job training other companies may provide.) But is coffee-roasting such a widespread field in the area that these skills are going to be transferrable? Even if you're not literally roasting the beans the place will sell, isn't this trial period about increasing the company's profits more than it's about increasing your employability with firms other than this one? Why, if not out of a sense that this was all that was out there, would anyone apply for this job? If Yglesias is right in his stats, that's not likely to be the case. So maybe you'd do this if you're someone who doesn't need the money?
"Their calculus," writes Yglesias, "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." This order, however, distorts the process itself. Many people will work really hard for pay - including low pay. But it's going to be a different group of candidates who put in their all for nothing in return. These are people who think coffee-making is neato, but who aren't quite rich enough to be paying for coffee-making lessons.
A commenter, who has committed the bloggy sin of not providing at least a pseudonym (it's not as if I have any idea who "Petey" is, but at least this appears to be the same character across the years), finds my concerns here "ridiculous," because the "internship" is eight hours long, and so are some regular job interviews.
As I respond in the comments, I concede that job interviews can last even more than eight hours, but the job one is interviewing for in such cases tends to be a big deal as in high-status and long-term. People I know who've applied for tenure-track academic jobs report interviewing processes longer than eight hours, but they're being assessed as colleagues for life. Whereas the kind of job for which the training is eight hours long - as opposed to eight years, give or take, for someone on the academic job market - is probably a very different sort of job. Granted, I don't know anything about coffee-roasting, but my experience cappuccino-frothing was, one did get paid on the job to learn how to do this, even though one's first efforts may not have been sold.
If I sound particularly miffed about this particular internship, it's because this one actually hits closer to home. I've managed to avoid even applying for unpaid internships marked as such. But on at least three occasions (one bakery, one juice bar, one PR firm*) in my youth, I was informally taken on, asked to work for a trial period, not hired, and never compensated. I don't take this to mean something larger about my youthful attitude or abilities, given that I was also hired for (and never fired from) similar positions around the same time. Point being, I wasn't not paid on account of not having worked. The reason was, these places could get away with that.
The thing is, it's relatively easy to avoid unpaid work if it's clearly labeled as, this is unpaid and there are no promises it will lead to a particular job. (Those positions are more depressing, but also more upfront, and, as I understand it, more likely to be legal.) But once there's this other realm of work that might start paying, and it's up to the discretion of the employer when you're good and ready to deserve payment. I mean, what's to stop this coffee company from saying, gee, there are four really excellent candidates, it's so tough to decide, how about another eight hours unpaid? Or from saying, oh, what a shame there's only room in the budget to hire two people, but how about you six - care to stay on unpaid, in exchange for valuable experience and free coffee?
As the very junior, not-so-skilled individual trying to find work, you're in a position of not a heck of a lot of knowledge or power. Unless mom or dad happens to be an employment lawyer with time to spare (not my situation), you're on your own. And it's easy enough to get sucked into working for nothing - whether or not you're wealthy enough to afford doing so - if it's your impression that this is the only route to working for something.
*SECOND UPDATE: I now remember that the PR firm didn't not hire me. I "quit," I think, once it was clear that there was an indefinite period of unpaid. I think. This was, I believe, exactly one hundred years ago. I did get something interesting out of that "job," though, which was to learn that there are people who appear in the society pages not because they're real socialites, but because they pay to get placed in them. Of course, this was in the pre-"Real Housewives" era, back when faux-aristocracy really meant something.