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The Future of Au Pairs in Britain

Apologies for a slightly dramatic title, but since I have joined the board of the British Au Pair Agencies Association I have been thinking about this a lot.

In an industry where supply and demand experiences extreme changes in a short time, there are inevitably victims. Before the EU expansion, there were a lot of young people who wanted to come to Britain as au pair to broaden their horizons. As an au pair, they would have a chance to earn and learn. The language skills were very important to them and together with earning a bit of hard currency it gave them a huge advantage when they returned home.

They came to Britain with the use of their local agency in their home country, which would collaborate with an agency in Britain who would find a suitable family and support the au pair during her stay in Britain.

Now, young Europeans have lots of options, especially if they speak English fairly well (maybe they were au pair a few years ago!) they can go and work in the hotel industry for example. Mind you, although the gross pay may look very attractive, the disposable income and free time most certainly won’t be generous. If you work in a hotel and you are not fluent in English, you are likely to work in a housekeeping role and you may be working alongside other non-native speakers, so not much chance of improving languages skills. In addition to this, so much of the pay will go to travel and accommodation, as you are likely to live in overpriced crammed housing in the worst areas of the London suburbs.

And even those young Europeans who do still value the au pair experience as a great first opportunity in Britain, they are less likely now to use traditional methods of finding a position. By cutting out the ‘middleman’ and going online to find their own host family the risks are numerous and of varying gravity. Many families are online because they do not value the protection and professionalism that a good au pair agency can add to the cultural experience of the au pair, they may in fact be looking for a cheap cleaner! And some families, thankfully a minority, really abuse the vulnerable au pair, given her inappropriate tasks or asking her to work all hours for little money, often without the opportunity for a language course. Even if the family she found online is nice and genuine, the au pair is missing out on the network of finding other au pairs, an excursion program and the support (in her own language) from the agency at times when a kind word of encouragement is needed.

So who is the victim of all of today’s threats?

First of all those au pair agencies unable or unwilling to adjust to the new situation may decide that business today is too challenging and shut down. Personally, I think this is not a bad thing. I have seen it happen in the travel industry and the ones strong and innovative enough to adjust to what the customer wants have survived and even benefited from the pressure of the market.

Host families are also feeling the pinch. There are fewer au pairs around now than in previous years. However, good agencies with reliable source agencies in Europe are still able to provide great au pairs. But some of the changes for the families are more subtle. Fewer au pairs are looking to come over for 12 months or longer now for example, as without a visa and with cheap flights home, plans are made for shorter periods of cultural exchange. Many youngsters are now looking to be au pair in the summer holidays only.

But how about the au pair candidates? They seem to be the winners for now. With endless opportunities today with a wealth of choice in programs such as ‘work and travel’, ‘study and travel’, ‘work experience’ and ‘sandwich courses’ volunteer programs and teaching English abroad, the opportunities for a gap year are now more extensive than ever before.

But actually, the au pair experience is also still fashionable! The program is just better, with high calibre candidates who really appreciate the au pair experience as an opportunity for cultural exchange. So for families who respect and appreciate the au pair program as a cultural experience, there are still excellent candidates with high level of education and often strong language skills.

In the last few weeks I have attended a number of events where I was able to meet with partners from all over Europe and further afield with innovative ideas for the future. They all believe the au pair experience is alive and kicking and that their educated candidates have a lot to offer to British host families.

At smartaupairs, we continue to look at ways to innovate and offer all stakeholders a positive experience. This means looking after the needs of the overseas agents, the au pairs and ofcourse the host families. This way we feel we can offer an attractive proposition to all parties and secure a great long-term future for the au pair experience.

In the last few weeks I have visited the ‘work & travel’ forum in Berlin and met with potential new partners, some who have been sending au pairs for years and others just taking their first tentative steps into developing a quality au pair program. Last week I was in New York, meeting with our USA Au pair agency. They place candidates from all over the world in American host families. I was very impressed with the infrastructure and support offered to au pairs in America and it certainly gave me ideas for the future of au pairs in Britain too. The European au pair agencies present at this meeting were all of the highest standards, as is required to meet the standards of recruiting au pair candidates to send to the USA.