Where particles and personnel collide

Written by
Changeboard Team

30 Jan 2015

30 Jan 2015 • by Changeboard Team

What does CERN do?

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific study. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the universe is made of and how it works. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter – the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of nature.

The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

Founded in 1954, the CERN Laboratory sits astride the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 20 member states.

How many employees are there, what locations does it cover and what’s the annual turnover?

CERN employs 2,500 people, but we welcome and run an infrastructure for more than 10,000 scientists. The annual budget for this is 1 billion Swiss francs. With the previous accelerator CERN was up to 4,500 staff, but we have reduced headcount over the past 10 years. Employee engagement is high, making voluntary turnover extremely low. However, in line with CERN’s mission of producing talent for its member states we force a rotation policy on many positions. Last year this resulted in 200 new hires, a rate we expect to maintain.

When did you join and why?

I came here in 1989 for a six-month work placement and returned after graduating as a fellow. I’ve been here ever since. The year I joined was a very exciting one as it was the year CERN became the birthplace of the World Wide Web. My background is in IT, and I joined and stayed because of the challenges. Pushing the boundaries of humankind’s knowledge pushes the limits of engineering, IT and all the other domains, constantly making us question how we can do things better, faster and more efficiently. Physicists can be challenging customers.

What do you most love about your role and CERN?

Part of my job is to promote its activities and opportunities. For example, countries considering joining CERN want to know the benefits of doing so. I show them the range of learning and educational possibilities that we provide through graduate and student training schemes.

What are your current responsibilities?

I look after recruitment and selection using a holistic approach from fellowships and permanent hires through to student and graduate programmes. We recruit around 150 graduates and more than 200 students every year. Students join us on work placements for periods of up to one year, while graduates stay for up to three years.

There are 70 people in our HR team. I’m directly responsible for 25 of these, but my remit covers much more than looking after recruitment and students.

When you were brought in, what recruitment challenges were you facing?

Good question. You would think that with all the notoriety of CERN we wouldn’t have any. However, as CERN is predominantly a technical and engineering infrastructure, we recruit across a huge range of disciplines and experience including civil and mechanical engineering, computing and materials science. On top of this, we also employ doctors, lawyers and an on-site fire brigade.

CERN simply wasn’t on the radar of our target population. Most people think you need to be a physicist to work with us, but that’s like thinking you have to be an astronaut to work at NASA. A third of our roles are technician roles requiring expertise but not a university degree. Getting the CERN opportunities known to this population is still part of our challenge. Another was our recruitment brand – we didn’t have one.

Why are opportunities at CERN not known to your target population and why is this still part of your challenge?

Most technicians – our target population – simply don’t think they have the qualifications to apply to CERN. This is incorrect. Most engineers look to typical ‘known brands’, yet surprisingly CERN can offer many more engineering challenges.

How diverse are you when it comes to recruiting?

We are constantly seeking new sources and pools of talent, so we never hire two people the same. We target our 20 member states, focusing on the less represented ones. Diversity is one of our core values and is also key to the success of collaborating teams at CERN.

What were your thought processes leading to the recruitment strategy implemented to counter the lack of a recognisable or established brand? It all starts with a need. The new head of HR put in place an overall new HR strategy. Part of this involved interviewing CERN’s management about their priorities, and recruitment came out high on the list. The previous model of the HR generalist looking after their recruitment processes was altered and a Centre of Excellence for Recruitment was set up. Before deciding on where we were going to communicate about recruitment, we reflected on what we were going to communicate – hence the thought processes about developing an Employee Value Proposition (EVP). Our EVP was identified by our people as what makes CERN a great place to work. In a nutshell, it encompasses collaboration, integrity, purpose, challenge and imagination - not forgetting quality of life.

How has new technology helped you with recruitment?

In the past recruitment advertising was done on an ad-hoc basis. To purchase an advert from one job board in one country was expensive and had high administrative overheads. With the setting up of the recruitment CoE, which I oversee, we had a small budget for systematic advertising. We use Broadbean online software, which allows us to achieve economies of scale on the advertising price and drastically reduce overheads. The multi-posting facility is ideal where we need to publish in several European countries at once. We approached Broadbean in September 2012 and, as the tool was very quick to set up, we were able to start using it in the same month.

What return on investment has this had in terms of quality of candidates, building future talent pipeline, identifying new talent, reducing long-term recruitment spend, speeding up time to hire and overall cost savings?

The results we see today are excellent. While a few years ago we only had a few thousand applicants per annum, in some cases we’re now seeing a thousand applications for one post. We had about 30,000 applicants last year for 200 positions. We have found new sources of talent, which allows us to cut time to hire by avoiding republications.

All our posts go via Broadbean and the social media channels, which is another major advantage of using the system.

What impact has this had on your employer brand?

We’ve taken the Broadbean-Facebook integration a step further by working with NetNatives to develop CERN’s Facebook pages. The integration with Broadbean and the ability for candidates to apply via Facebook reflects many elements of CERN’s brand.

What lessons have you learnt along the way?

There is no silver bullet. Multi-posting with Broadbean, a social and professional media strategy, and an EVP and video-screen-ing assessment are integral components of an overall solution.

I’ve learned to ensure job descriptions are re-written in language that external candidates will understand and that ATS and overall recruitment processes are scalable to deal with the extra volume of candidates without additional resources. If your recruitment process involves reading every single incoming CV, this needs to be re-designed so that you only read the CVs that are relevant and from potentially recruitable candidates.

What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve received on your recruitment strategy from internal or external candidates?

We’ve won seven awards and we regularly receive feedback from internal hiring managers about the calibre of the recruitment pool, which has surged in the last two years.

What tips would you give others facing similar challenges?

Developing a brand is essential. It’s the foundation for all your recruitment communication. Cynics might say ‘that’s easy for CERN – you are well known’, but the key is being well known in the target population, and that’s a common challenge for anybody. I’m impressed with the success of Network Rail – its Facebook pages for its apprenticeship scheme have more than 10,000 likes, and that’s down to its employee branding.