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Meeting the demand for workers with social media skills

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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the December/January edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community colleges have long taken pride in their ability to adjust to changing workforce needs. The local plumbers union requires a new certification. No problem. Adjust. A biotechnology manufacturer seeks workers to staff its state-of-the-art research facility. Not a problem. Adjust.

But what happens when a new industry materializes almost overnight?

From January 2011 to June 2011, Internet staffing firm Onward Search reports that the number of jobs with the phrase “social media” in their description increased by more than 45 percent. With the explosion of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites—Facebook alone now boasts more than 800 million users worldwide—more employers want workers who can skillfully navigate the social media universe. And community colleges are quickly becoming the place to turn.

With entry-level jobs from $45,000 a year into six figures, some institutions have begun working with employers to launch professional training courses and a handful of for-credit certificates intended to help businesses and their employees tap a wellspring of new business and marketing opportunities.

Start from scratch

As co-lead marketing instructor at Madison Area Technical College (MATC) in Wisconsin, Kristin Uttech works closely with local employers that advise the college on the skills most in demand.

“Our business partners kept asking, ‘Where is the social media training?’” she says. “We could not find evidence of cost-effective, high-quality training, even though we knew that 60 percent to 70 percent of marketing jobs required some element of social media.”

After talking with other instructors at the college, she learned that the graphic design, journalism and visual arts departments also had interest in integrating social media components with existing curricula. It was time to adjust.

MATC launched its first social media certificate program in the fall of 2010, with courses on social media campaigns, ethical issues surrounding social media, Web design strategies and writing for new media. Courses in development include designing a mobile website, digital storytelling and advanced social media campaigns.

As part of a recent social media campaigns course, students developed an e-marketing campaign for Axiom Foods. This spring, the same team of students will execute that marketing plan, develop ads for Facebook, launch a blog and handle promotion using the popular Google AdWords application.

“We want our students to walk out of here with hands-on, real-world experience,” says Uttech of the college’s social media marketing program.

Local employers so far are impressed.

“Already, we’ve seen a great response from the business community,” Uttech says.

A handful of MATC graduates have secured jobs in social media. One graduate who had previously worked in traditional marketing accepted a position as social media manager at his f rm. He credited his MATC certification with helping him land the job.

In less than a year, the college has gone from offering one section of its social media campaigns course to five.

A growing field

A successful social media manager certification course at Sandhills Community College (SCC) in North Carolina prompted instructor David Blide to lobby for more. Though SCC is a rural college, Senior Director of Business and Industry Services Alan Duncan says there are plenty of local opportunities for social media experts, even more so in nearby Raleigh.

That’s the point.

“We want the certificate to be something students can use to find a job,” Blide says.

SCC’s social media manager course focuses on social media for small businesses. The field is constantly evolving. And Blide says few people know how to do the work.

“It’s such a dynamic industry. My goal is to teach strategies more than actual applications,” he says.

Students at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in Ohio can enroll in an Institute for Social Media (ISM). In 2010, the college’s Workforce Development Center formed an advisory council of social media professionals, including experts from blue-chip employers, such as Procter & Gamble, to develop programs.

One of ISM’s offerings, marketing for social media certification, requires students to spend three eight-hour days learning about social media and mobile marketing. They then must pass a final exam before obtaining their certification.

Project Manager Jim Kleemeier says the program is built for people who see social media as an important aspect of their career.

“It’s not a lunch-and-learn program; there is lots of rigor,” he explains.

A helping hand

Not every college has the academic know-how on staff to launch its own social media training program. When administrators at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina decided to offer its social networking for business certificate, they turned to nonprofit online education partner Learning Resources Network.

Through the program, students learn the differences between traditional and social media marketing. They also learn about technical nuances, such as how to integrate e-marketing campaigns with YouTube and other tools. And they study how online efforts fit into larger business marketing and sales plans.