After finding 14 au pairs for myself, and countless others for host families, I have a few tips to share on how to find the best fit for your family.
Early Bird Gets the Worm
Start the process early – believe it or not, some overseas au pairs apply as much as a year ahead of time. Most overseas au pairs submit their application 3 to 6 months ahead of time. The old addage “the early bird gets the worm” is very true. The good applications get snapped up quickly! I would recommend applying 4 months prior to the time that you need an overseas au pair. The minimum lead time for “matching” is 5 weeks ahead of time for an overseas au pair (for visa and flight arrangements). If you are applying 6 weeks ahead of time, don’t panic – we will probably still be able to match you – but we probably won’t have as many candidates to choose from. Don’t sweat the application process – initially just fill in the application portion (including host family agreement and payment authorization) – the references, photos, and letter can come later in the process.
If you don’t have much lead time, there are also in-country options (transitional au pairs or 2nd years) that take much less than 5 weeks (some are available within a few days).
We get applicants from all countries throughout the year, however there are busier times of the year than others. If you want an au pair from the Southern hemisphere (e.g. South Africa, South America, Australia) – we have a large number of arrivals in Jan/Feb. (they graduate from school – as it’s their summer) so apply in Sept/Oct. Alternatively, if you are after a European au pairs – the summer is the busiest arrival time, so apply in February/March. We don’t usually get a large number of au pairs that want to come in November of December as it’s right before Christmas.
Transitional au pairs (in-country) are most available in August/Sept. and Feb/March – a month or so after our peak arrival times (if it’s not a good match – then the au pair/host family usually knows within a month), although transitional in-country au pairs are available at all times of the year – and given that Cultural Care is the largest au pair agency – we have more of a selection.
If the Glove Fits…
The most important thing in the matching process is to try and figure out the needs and “style” of your family so that we can help you find the right match. Here are some areas to reflect on (and write in an email to me):
Experience: Do you need a mother’s helper (someone who takes direction well), or an independent “sole charge”, self-reliant au pair? (or where should he/she fall on the continuum?). Do you want a first year au pair (that can stay for up to 2 years) or an experienced 2nd year au pair from another part of the country?
Skills: Do you need someone with any special skills? (e.g. an au pair who loves ice skating since your daughter wants to be a pro?, or someone who loves babies for a family with multiple babies, or someone who can multi-task with a family with older and younger children)? English skills can be assessed over the phone (in conjunction with their English rating – 4′s are not that fluent, 5s are usually OK with some practice, and 6s and 7s are fluent) – while driving skills are more difficult to ascertain long distance. If you need a safe driver for your children, be sure that they have driven at least several times a week for a year or more.
Maturity Level: This usually comes from life experiences (and sometimes how the au pair is raised). Someone who has lived away from home for awhile tends to be more mature than those who haven’t. I usually advise my families to try and get an au pair who has lived away from home for at least several months.
Personality: First thing to do is to reflect on your own family. What is your style? If you’ve had previous nannies – how would you describe the traits that you’ve valued the most? Over the years, for instance, we’ve determined that we really like au pairs that are driven, have high energy and are positive. Once you’ve figured what is a good style fit – then you need to determine if an au pair has that style. It’s sometimes hard to figure out what an au pair’s personality is over the phone – but I usually ask them the question: “How would your friends describe you”? I also see how many times the same adjective is used in their references – if I keep seeing the same adjective over and over – this is usually an indicator of what they are like. I also stare long and hard at the photos….what sense do you get about the au pair? I put a lot of weight on how lively they look in the photos – do they have a “spark”? And, I interview their references – I tell them that they are my eyes and ears…..and I need them to paint a picture of the candidate: I ask them the same question: what 3 adjectives would you use to describe this au pair?…and I NEVER let them off the phone without telling me one negative about the au pair. I then multiply this negative by 10 and ask myself if I could live with that? (references always like to minimize any negatives). The beauty of transitional (in-country) au pairs is that you can meet them – and test the “chemistry” with your family. With 2nd year au pairs, you can interview their first year family to get an idea of what they are like – more insight into what they are like.
Nationality: I’ve learned that there are all sorts of personalities within nationalities. There are some broad generalizations that are not necessarily the rule, but here goes: South Americans tend to be very nurturing and family oriented (sometimes their driving and English aren’t the best, though), Brazilians are more gregarious and outgoing than the other South American countries, Germans like structure and discipline (and are typically good drivers), Eastern Europeans vary by country – in general they tend to be very hard working and appreciative. Australians are hard working and easy going. Swedes are very similar to Americans, and tend to have very good English and are easy going and open minded.
Values: This usually comes from their family. Ask the au pair the question: “what values did your parents teach you as most important in your life”? Then ask yourself: Are these similar to our own family values?
Once you’ve reflected on these areas, prioritize your “wish list” from most important to least, and send these to me (DebSchwarz@mac.com). I will be sure to get them to your matching specialist (and also keep an eye out for you as well!).
Review an Application Quickly and Move On It
When you look at an application that isn’t quite right – remember, there are likely more applicants out there. If you have any doubts, are second quessing yourself, and a part of you thinks that the application doesn’t fit your needs, move onto the next one! – and do so quickly. No one’s feelings will be hurt. The sooner you “pass”, the sooner you’ll have another application in your file. We get new applications every day. Be sure to give very clear reasons for why the application wasn’t a good fit so that we can use that feedback in finding the next applicant.
You are only given one application in your Extranet file at a time, and no other host families see that application until you decide if you’d like to proceed or pass. We ask that you review the application within 2 days so that we are not tying up an application for too long. If you think it’s a fit, and want to take it to the next step, then let us know. Sometimes it’s a good idea to send the au pair a letter about yourself (the one that you did for the application is a good start), along with photos and set up a time to talk over the phone. They will not have seen your application before you call (sometimes they see a brief summary, but not always) so it’s best to brief them before you talk. Check the time difference on www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/.
If I send you a second application via email (and there is already one in your file), I’m doing it on the “sly”. (I do this to give options for non-infant families because I know it’s hard to decide just looking at one). I can only reserve these “email applications” for 24 hours – so move quickly! They will be unreserved and likely onto another family in 24 hours. Let me know pronto if you’d like this application officially in your file (in lieu of the one that is already there), otherwise they will automatically go back into the pool in 24 hours. Another option is to ask your matcher for a “consultative matching session” – this is done over the phone and can really help move along the process!
Throw the Net Far and Wide
Cover all your bases. When I look for an au pair, I look in a number of places. I found my last two au pairs on my own (also know as a “pre-match”). if you do this, you get $350 off the program fee. Once you decide it’s a match, you ask the au pair to apply to Cultural Care in their home country, or in London). A good website to use if you have specific needs (e.g. a 26 year old Danish au pair that has worked with triplets) is www.greataupair.com. You can use filters to search for just about any age/nationality/experience level, and even au pairs that are already registered with Cultural Care (just do a keyword search on “Cultural Care”). Sometimes second year Cultural Care au pairs apply here.
You Never Truly Know Until They Walk Through the Door
If you are looking at a “second year” au pair (from another part of the country, extending for 6, 9 or 12 months), consider flying them here on a cheap ticket for the weekend. There is no better way to see if an au pair fits with your family than a trial run for a weekend! In these cases, I always cross question the first host family as hopefully they’ll give you a lot of insight into the au pair’s personality and strengths/weaknesses. (the first host family phone number will be on the second year application). Sometimes the host family wasn’t the best host family – and may be a bit miffed that the au pair is leaving after a year. Usually the local coordinator in that area can give you a good perspective on situations like this.
No matter how much screening you will have done, conversations over the phone, reference checks etc. – you really won’t know if it’s a good match until the au pair walks through the door. If it’s not a good fit, you’ll know within a week or two. Call your local coordinator and start thinking about whether or not you should move on. The longer you prolong a bad match – the more heartache it will cause. (it’s unfathomable for me to learn recently that one of our competitors won’t allow a transition to occur within the first two months – oh my!)
I hope these “tips” help you during the screening process – toward the goal of finding a great au pair that is a good fit for your family!
Oh – and once you find a candidate you like – here are my favorite interview questions:
1. Tell me about your current job. Why are you leaving? Hrs., Salary, etc.?
2. Why are you looking to be an au pair? If you weren’t an au pair in the U.S. this year, what would you do?
3. What is your favorite age of child to work with? Why?
4. Tell me about your experience with xxx year olds. What’s impt. to this age?
5. What is your ideal job? Type of family, hours, etc.
6. What job did you like least and why?
7. What values did you family teach you? (important question!)
8. How would you describe your personality? (3–5 adjectives) How would your friends describe you?
9. What do you like to do with your spare time?
10. What type of family did you grow up in? (very impt.!)
11. When are you available? Do you have any planned holidays?
12. What are your hopes/expectations? Sole care vs. mother’s helper, curfew, cars?
13. How is your health? Smoking? Swimming? Driving? Do you exercise?