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CERN sees surge in job applicants after turning to social media

CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has seen a surge in job applicants for hard-to-fill vacancies, after using social media to recruit

CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has seen a tenfold surge in candidates applying for hard-to-fill vacancies, after turning to social media.

CERN, based in Geneva, says it has seen the number of applicants for typical jobs grow from 30 to 50 to over 500 during the last 12 months.

The nuclear research establishment has transformed its recruitment processes by replacing one-off ads in specialist publications and on job sites with recruitment on Twitter, Facebook and investing in cloud-based recruitment platforms.

Over the past six months, it has attracted over 500 referrals from Facebook alone, said James Purvis, head of talent acquisition at CERN.

“Facebook is a massive referral network. A lot of people are finding out about jobs from friends of friends,” Purvis told Computer Weekly.

The organisation, which recruits between 200 permanent staff each year, has traditionally relied on its high-profile brand to attract suitable candidates.

The Large Hiring Challenge

But CERN has not always found it easy to fill vacancies – a problem known internally as the Large Hiring Challenge.

“People think you have to be a particle physicist to work at CERN, but we employ very few physicists. We need technicians, engineers, accountants, lawyers, and firefighters,” said Purvis, speaking ahead of a conference on HR technology.

Got the job – now read the T Shirt

Sometimes the low tech, or even the no-tech solution to recruitment is the best approach, says James Purvis, head of talent acquisition at CERN.

The research organisation recently had to come up with an innovative solution to overcome a major shortage of Java engineers.

“We tried all the different job boards, job postings and social media. We tried videos on YouTube, we put posts on Facebook and on Java job boards," said Purvis.

In the end, the answer proved much simpler.

“We realised that our Java engineers are presenting at numerous conferences in Europe and the US,” he said.

“Our low tech solution – we gave them T-shirts saying Cern is recruiting Java programmers.”

Problem solved.

Purvis has replaced the manual placement of job advertisements in journals and specialist job sites, which took up a huge amount of HR staff time, with a high-speed cloud-based service.

The service, known as Broadbean can post a job vacancy to 40 or 50 job sites across Europe with a single click.

“We used to do sporadic advertising. We went to one job board, and it cost us €600-900 to post one job. Now we can get a factor of ten cost savings by buying in bulk. The administration cost is a lot lower,” he said.

Video interviews

CERN has made further savings by screening shortlisted candidates remotely, through cloud-based video service, Sonru, rather than interviewing each candidate face to face.


James-Purvis-CERNJames Purvis, CERN

“We have carried out 1,500 interviews using Sonru. We can reduce the number of candidates we need to interview in Geneva and have seen at least a 20% saving in recruitment costs,” said Purvis.

The system has allowed CERN to weed out candidates who look good on paper but turn out to be disappointing face-to-face at an early stage.

It gives recruitment managers the freedom to review the videos when it suits them. “'To Sonru' has now become a verb at CERN,” said Purvis.

Social Media

CERN’s HR team is producing a large range of videos for Facebook and YouTube to attract potential recruits.

They raise CERN’s profile as an employer and give candidates advice on applying for jobs at the organisation, said Purvis.

And the HR team is using Twitter to post job vacancies. This helps to push CERN’s recruitment pages up the rankings in Google, says Purvis. “We want to make sure we are up at the top,” he said.

Tracking applicants

The programme has left CERN with another problem – how to track the growing number of candidates that are applying for vacancies.

“Because of the success of our advertising and Sonru, we have moved from dealing with 30 or 50 applicants per post to several hundred per post,” said Purvis.

CERN has been using iCams applicant tracking system since 2002, but Purvis is looking at improvements that could made applicant tracking easier.

“Our applicant tracking system is very robust, but our process runs on the assumption that the recruiter needs to review each CV,” he said. “We are looking to give rankings to candidates based on their skills and experience, rather than read every CV ” he said.


Purvis plans to upgrade the applicant tracking system next year. The main technical challenge will be integrating it with CERN’s Oracle-based HR system.

Because CERN is a government organisation, it needs a sophisticated HR system that can deal with issues such as helping staff relocate, and finding schools for workers' children.

“Technology has allowed us to deliver more with the same resources. It has allowed us to better meet the needs of the organisation, particularly in areas we were not managing to do a few years ago,” said Purvis.

James Purvis is speaking at the HR Tech Europe conference in Amsterdam on 25-26 October


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