Are social media jobs here to stay?

December 21, 2010: 12:36 PM ET

The demand for social media jobs has exploded, even as overall unemployment heads in the opposite direction. But in a fledgling field surrounded by hype, some industry insiders are saying it may be too good to last.

By Anne VanderMey, reporter

With billions of dollars on offer for fledgling social media companies and even the biggest corporations refining their approach to the Tweet, the budding social media industry seems like a goldmine for young and tech-savvy jobseekers.

The demand for social media jobs has exploded, even as overall unemployment hovers around 10%. A recent study published by SocialMediaInfluence.com showed that 59 of the Fortune 100 companies have at least one employee who works full time in social media, and that job postings directly related to social media have soared 600% in the last five years.

The Social Media Influence report, which collaborated with the career site Indeed.com to research online job listings, found more than 21,000 social media-related job postings -- up from only a few thousand in 2005.

That may be a glimmer of good news for the country's vast pool of young and underemployed college graduates. But in a fledgling field surrounded by hype, some industry insiders are saying it may be too good to last.

As social media hiring has picked up, the pool of qualified talent has failed to keep pace. The resulting imbalance of supply and demand, says Curtis Hougland, founder of the New York-based marketing and social media firm Attention, is the surest sign of hiring inflation.

Demand for social media skills in the corporate world has outstripped the supply of candidates with training in communications and the analytical skills to track the effectiveness of a media campaign. The void, Houghland says, has been filled by a burgeoning workforce of self-proclaimed social media experts -- qualified and not so qualified.

To explain the situation, Hougland turns to an analogy that has become ominously common when describing social media -- the dot-com bubble.

"What happened [in the 1990s] is just that the market became impatient," Hougland says. "That's the only danger with social media. We might already be there."

Hiring for social media jobs started picking up steam in about 2005, though it still constitutes only a small percentage of overall post-college job placements, says New York University's Trudy Steinfeld, director of the university's office of career services. Steinfeld estimated that only a few students -- ballpark 1 to 2% -- take jobs in social media specifically, but that those numbers have been increasing.

More often, companies eager for social media authenticity aim even younger, tasking student interns with charting their new media course. "They're using interns to test it out more and more," Steinfeld says.

That can be a dangerous strategy, says Bernhard Warner, director of Custom Communication, the London-based consultancy that publishes Social Media Influence.

Stories of social media mishaps abound, fueled by unfiltered, and often unapproved, communication. Most famously, British furniture retailer Habitat used hashtags identifying with Iranian protests in its Twitter feed to have its promotional Tweets appear in newsfeeds about the political actions. After the ploy was widely criticized, company executives credited the fallout to an "overenthusiastic intern" and apologized.

"You can't leave this in the hands of babes, because this is what's going to happen," Warner says.

That hasn't stopped a sea of recent graduates from adding Facebook and Foursquare to the skills section of their resumes. Nor has it stopped colleges from launching social media classes or even adding entire social media masters degrees.

It's all part of an effort to get in on a hiring spree that shows no immediate signs of slowing, says Jim Durbin, a social media headhunter and entrepreneur.

"This next year," Durbin says, "is when it will really start to explode."

There are several levels of expertise within the social media profession. Most commonly, there's the community manager – the feet on the ground, so to speak, who oversee a company's online communities; the analyst or strategist -- who builds and monitors social media campaigns; the product developer – who is responsible for keeping the company's software up to date; the editor or publisher -- who oversees content and the brand; and the executive -- a rare position, usually filled by a public relations professional.

Typically, companies hire some combination of these positions. The field also dances along the edges of customer service, IT, public relations, marketing and sales, according to the Social Media Influence report.

As the profession has developed, companies have moved away from hiring social media "gurus" or "ninjas," terms that were clich├ęd almost as soon as they were coined. But businesses often still struggle to find the right candidates for the jobs, and expect their new hires to move mountains with few resources.

"Often, these companies have inflated expectations when they hire," Durbin says.

It can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when the qualifications for a social media manager are so nebulous. It presents a serious challenge for hiring managers, especially those unfamiliar with social media -- in a field less than five years old, who can really claim to be an expert?

"It's one of our biggest frustrations," Hougland says. "You can't always discern who's a social media expert and who's not."

As the field matures, Durbin and others foresee widespread restructuring. To prepare, Durbin is opening a social media consulting and placement firm designed for mid-career professionals, where he sees the most growth potential. Durbin foresees that it's just a matter of time until dubiously qualified social media experts, both young and old, but especially those with little to no experience, are exposed.

"The good news is, I think that's the bubble," Durbin says.

But even for the most qualified social media wizards, pure social media careers may not exist 10 years down the line. As it becomes more ubiquitous, social media is evolving into a skill set, not a profession.

"Social media departments are basically going to go away," Durbin says, as the practice is merged with other divisions. "You don't have an e-mail manager, do you?"

But that doesn't spell a life of poverty for tech-smart, well-spoken social media managers. The Community Managers Meetup, a group of social media professionals started by Mashable.com social media strategist Vadim Lavrusik, counts more than 300 people in its membership. And Lavrusik says they aren't worried.

Most, Lavrusik says, came to the field serendipitously, whether because the jobs they thought they'd get after college weren't available, or simply because they discovered they had a knack for the field.

"They're saying, 'Here's an extremely new field, something that I'm really interested in, and hey, I'm actually pretty good at it,'" Lavrusik says.

After all, the primary purpose of social media is enabling connectivity and "just to connect with other people," Lavrusik says. And that need isn't going anywhere.

That's the other side of the dot-com boom-and-bust analogy. Even after the bubble burst, Internet companies went on to have a profound effect on both business and everyday life around the world. There was also an oversupply of programmers, which had been the hot job du jour. But you rarely hear about programmers going hungry.

"In the long run, they did fine. The same way I feel about programmers I feel about social media," Hougland says. "The need for people who understand social media is only going to grow."

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