Do you like children? Want to travel? Learn a new language? Experience a different culture? Earn a bit of cash? Know your way around the business end of a vacuum cleaner?
If the answer to all of the above is “yes,” or even “probably,” you could consider spending some time working abroad as an au pair.
The idea of becoming a “glorified nanny” will not appeal to everyone, but many myths about au pairing are just incorrect assumptions and stereotypes. Au pairs do not spend all their time preparing meals and changing nappies – far from it. The role of au pair is more casual and less responsible than a childminder or cleaner. In fact, the hint is in the name. Au pair comes from the French phrase “equal to,” and this is a good way to look at the relationship between employee and employer.
Au pairs are not skivvies, but neither should they be left to run households or take care of extremely young children for extended times – for one thing, the pay is not good enough! Instead, the role of au pair is one of help, not servitude. Families take on a young person – usually under 25 – to look after their offspring for the few hours between school and work when they are not available to care for them themselves, and pay them a basic living allowance rather than a wage. However, the main attraction of au pairing is being welcomed into the daily life of the host family – sharing their meals, social time and home.
As an au pair, you will probably live with your employers, which can enrich the experience for both sides. It can seem a bit like going on an exchange trip at first, but the practice helps to build a rapport and establish working relationships much more quickly than a standard workplace. While you will help the family with their childcare needs, they will pay for your food, provide accommodation and give you an agreed amount of spending money during your stay.
Unfortunately, it can go wrong. If you do not get on with your family, or issues later crop up over pay, conditions or work expectations, it can be impossible to keep working there. Another thing to consider is pets – you may or may not have to look after the family dog, but signing up with an animal-loving household requires tolerance if not active enthusiasm. Discuss any allergies to fur or feathers early on.
Hours vary from family to family, but usually au pairs are expected to take children to and from school and sometimes evening activities, do light housework such as cleaning and ironing, and prepare meals for the children if their parents are home late. Some families may have a full-time nanny who takes main responsibility, and in such cases au pairs help where they are needed. Often though, au pairs look after older children who need babysitting in the evening as much as doing the school run. Expect to work about 20 hours, spread across the week. Again, dependent on different family needs, au pairs might join family trips at the weekend, but despite the more casual set-up, they are still entitled to days and evenings off.
The other bonus of living in is that you pick up the language far more quickly. It helps to have a basic grasp of the local lingo, otherwise you set yourself up for a tough few weeks while you learn from scratch, but children are great teachers. Many first-time au pairs cannot speak of a word of the host country’s native tongue, but can still communicate with the youngsters under their charge better than the adults.
If you are very lucky, your host family may pay for you to go to language classes while the children are at school, but often this is something you will have to pay for if you do not trust yourself to learn it alone. In Europe, speaking English is often the main requirement for getting a job, and the light housework tasks rarely require qualifications. Past experience, while extremely useful, is not essential either.
Due to the more relaxed nature of au pair work, finding employment is different than applying to a business. One way to find vacancies is to sign up to an agency, which will match you with a suitable family in your preferred country. This often involves paying a fee for their services, but it can take a lot of hassle out of finding work abroad and also gives something of a safety net if things go wrong with the first match. The British Au Pair Agencies Association has lots of advice, as well as an extensive list of member agencies for au pair jobs in the UK and Europe. A good database to find these agencies is here, or a few examples include EasyAuPair, Au Pair World and Almondbury Au Pair & Nanny Agency.
Alternatively, it is possible to cut out the middleman and find your own family through harnessing the power of the internet. Some websites will carry adverts for au pair work, and you can contact the prospective employers and decide for yourself whether they would be suitable, and whether they feel the same about you. This approach can be very successful, but can also leave you exposed if the agreement breaks down, as you could be stuck without agency support in another country, with no immediate means of support and a pressing need to find new employers immediately.
If this should happen, contact your embassy to see what help they can give. Regardless of what work you plan to do abroad, it is a bad idea to travel without an emergency stash of cash in a bank account, just in case something unexpected occurs.