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Exclusive Interview with Michael McHugh, Au Pair Agency Director


 Interview with Michael McHugh
Program Director
InterExchange Au Pair USA

Michael McHugh has been the Program Director of InterExchange Au Pair USA, based in New York City, since 2004.  Michael McHughMichael fell in love with cultural exchange during a year-long study abroad program to the U.K. and specifically sought out a career that would allow him to continue promoting these ideas to the larger world. 

Since then, he has lived and worked in Japan for three years and France for one year before returning to New York in 2002 to work for InterExchange.  Au Pair USA, located in New York, is a mid-size program, servicing between 700-1000 host families a year.

Edina:  Hi Michael and thank you for taking the time to interview with the Clearinghouse.  Would you tell our readers about yourself and how long you have been the Director of InterExchange Au Pair USA? 
Michael McHugh:  It’s my pleasure!  Thanks for giving us the opportunity to tell you more about InterExchange Au Pair USA. I have been the Program Director of the Au Pair USA program since 2004. My job is to set Au Pair USA’s goals while developing and implementing the strategy to achieve them. Our overriding mission is to develop the best au pair program for everyone involved through constant improvement of all aspects of the program.
Edina:  Can you tell us about your role as an Executive board member of IAPA? 
Michael McHugh:  The International Au Pair Association (IAPA) provides leadership and guidance to almost 200 au pair member agencies around the world. When families and au pairs work with an IAPA member agency, they know that the agency meets our strict business and ethical standards. As an elected board member, I work on outreach and training projects with au pair agencies around the world. We want to make sure that everyone involved in au pairing understands the industry’s best-practices, and follows the IAPA Code of Conduct to preserve the safety and integrity of the au pair community. In 2010 we held workshops in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and China, which were really well attended.

Au Pair USA's Award Winning Au Pair 

Edina:  Au Pair USA’s winning the "2010 Au Pair of the Year Award" was a very exciting time for your agency. You must have been very pleased. 
Michael McHugh:  InterExchange Au Pair USA is very proud that Mayumi won the 2010 Au Pair of the Year award. Every year there are hundreds of au pairs from Asia living in the U.S. but people still think of the au pair program as being primarily a European exchange program. We were so happy that Mayumi was the first au pair from Asia to receive this prestigious award because she truly represented the best aspects of the au pair program. As you could read in the winning essays, her family really loved and respected her not just because she performed her childcare duties but also because she simply brought so much joy to the family’s life.
Edina:  Would you tell us more about InterExchange Au Pair USA and what makes your program stand out?  Why should parents consider your agency?
Michael McHugh: InterExchange Au Pair USA is one of the most experienced and respected au pair agencies in the country. Well reviewed by customer protection agencies, such as the Better Business Bureau, we pride ourselves on offering superior customer service and on-going support. We also have a rigorous screening process that allows us to match high quality au pairs with the right families.  Not only do our families have the guidance of our experienced Local Coordinators in their area, but also they can also always talk to a friendly staff member when they call our headquarters in New York. In fact, all of our New York staff has spent time living and working abroad.
Also, Au Pair USA is part of our larger non-profit cultural exchange organization, which is committed to keeping the quality of the program at a premium, while keeping our fees as low as possible, so every family can benefit from the au pair program.

Au Pairs, Host Families & the Economy 

Edina:  Michael, tell us, how do you think the au pair industry is doing in this tough economy? 
Michael McHugh:  Like all service industries, the au pair industry was affected by the financial crisis in the U.S. The bright side of this change is that there are so many amazing au pairs available for host families.  In 2006 and 2007, agencies were really struggling to find enough great au pairs for the growing number of host families. But these days the balance has really shifted to the host families’ advantage in terms of greater diversity and experience of the au pair candidates. There has never been a better time to look for an au pair.
We really used this time to focus on the core values of the program, to work on our company-wide re-branding in 2009, and we put a lot of focus in developing our new online platform, InterExchange Passport, set to launch this year. So while a lot of agencies were scaling back, we took this time as an opportunity to invest in the future of our program. 
I think InterExchange Au Pair USA is really well positioned to embrace this shifting marketplace. We have over 20 years of experience to guide us through any difficult situations and an experienced and savvy staff to guide us into the future. 
Edina: What do you think about the latest two agencies to join the ranks of the current 12 au pair programs?  The International Au Pair Exchange (TIAPE), located in the Northwest, received their designation from the Department of State in the same year (2011) that ProAuPair did. 
Michael McHugh:  As for the new agencies, I believe that competition of any kind will benefit the entire au pair community. New agencies could expand access to the au pair program so more families can benefit from hosting an au pair. Also, increasing competition keeps the existing agencies on their toes, making sure that each host family and au pair is getting the care and attention they deserve. For those reasons, we welcome them and wish them well!

Screening Au Pairs - A Real Challenge for Agencies 

Edina:  I agree with you – new agencies do bring innovative features and programs to the industry and keep the other agencies alert to change. 

Michael, one of the most common question host parents send to us is about screening of au pairs.  They want to know how au pair agencies go about ensuring au pair applicants are going to provide safe and reliable childcare for their families.
Would you tell our readers about Au Pair USA’s screening process? 
Michael McHugh:  We work closely with experienced, top-quality agencies from around the world to recruit and screen au pairs for our host families. All references are verified and background checks are completed.

Au pairs go through an English language interview which helps us determine their motivation for becoming an au pair and if their expectations are in line with the program. The representatives in the au pair’s home country work closely with our New York staff to select only the highest-quality applicants to become candidates in our program. Our newly revamped au pair profile provides more relevant information for the host families so they can get a broader and more in-depth insight of their candidates.
Edina: I looked at the au pair profile pages, which is very helpful for host families.  I read on your website that you “do not use computers to match” au pairs and families like most other agencies.  Why is your method better? 

Michael McHugh:  When we say that we don’t use “computers to match”, we mean that there’s always a person guiding the matching process.  Of course we use computers to facilitate making proposals, but the actual matching part of the process isn’t automated. Person-to-person communication is the key to our process.
When a family fills out our online application, a Placement Specialist reviews it thoroughly and communicates with the family directly to find out more about what they are looking for in their ideal au pair. The family then has exclusive matching rights to the profiles they receive. This means that families are not competing against one another to be the first family to match with an au pair, allowing the families to take due diligence when reviewing candidates and to match at their own pace.
The Placement Specialist works with every family to facilitate the matching process, which gives the process a personal touch. Still, we understand that there are some families who have a more “do-it-yourself” mentality and would rather spend the time going through all the candidates in the database. InterExchange Passport will accommodate these families while still maintaining that one-to-one customer service level. It will actually be the best of both worlds.

Psychometric Screening & Testing 

Edina:  We recently posted my interview with psychologist, Dr. Flowers where he talks about his au pair assessment, the Booraem-Flowers Au Pair Psychometric Test. 
How important do you think psychometric tests are in the overall screening of an au pair? 
Michael McHugh:  We have used different psychometric tests over the years and I think they are all useful for helping us gain an understanding of a candidate’s ability to live and work in a foreign country. Living overseas is a big change in someone’s life so we want to make sure the candidates are up to that challenge. While candidates that score well are allowed to continue in the application process, we still rely on the interview process and other screening methods to determine overall suitability. No one test can determine suitability for such an important job.
Edina:   We know that there are prospective au pairs who should be excluded from the program due to mental health issues--such as mood disorders, or depression and bi-polar--in addition to certain behavioral tendencies that would exempt them from this kind of work.  I am talking about the tendency towards violence or drinking, that sort of thing.  Does your psychometric test identify these risk factors?
Michael:  Luckily, we haven’t had many of the problems you describe above.  We use our psychometric test more to understand how well people will adjust to and handle living and working abroad.  People who do well abroad are usually open to new ideas and experiences. These are the sorts of candidates we are looking for the Au Pair USA program.
Edina:  Which area do you feel is most important when screening an au pair?  Criminal background checks, childcare references, personality testing, etc.?
Michael McHugh: In addition to our thorough application process, screening and background checks, we always work with the family to ensure that the au pair they hire is the right fit for them. It is very important for a host family to assess what their needs and expectations are and to match with an au pair that compliments those requirements. Some families want someone who will be like a daughter or son to them while others want a more professional relationship.
So it is very important to keep these expectations in mind throughout the matching process. A host family should be clear and upfront while screening au pairs and only match with au pairs who would fit in well within their family dynamic. For example, if a family is very laid-back and relaxed, they probably should not match with an au pair who thrives on rules and wants to be micro-managed.  And like all relationships, continual communication will keep things working well.
Edina:  I agree, understanding expectations and keeping communication open is key to a solid basis for any match! 
You have mentioned InterExchange Passport a few times now and I am very curious about your new program feature – would you tell our readers about this?

InterExchange Passport Helps Host Families Search for Au Pairs 

Michael McHugh:  As you know, InterExchange completed a visual makeover a little over a year ago. We evolved our old “globe” logo into something more modern while still keeping a clear line to our roots. We also launched a completely new website that looks amazing and is more user friendly.
The next step will be the 2012 launch of InterExchange Passport, our custom-designed online platform for all of our host families and au pairs. We understand that families turn to the Internet for everything these days. Passport will put all aspects of the Au Pair USA program online, at their fingertips whenever they need it. It also creates a platform that will allow us to make steady advancements as technology itself improves.

Edina:  Michael, can your give us an example of what the InterExchange Passport  allows parents to do that they have not been able to do in the past?

Michael McHugh:  Families will be able to search hundreds of au pair profiles on their own schedule and compare their list of favorite candidates side by side.  After viewing the candidate’s video profiles, photos, etc, the Host Family will be able to schedule interviews and ultimately offer a position to their favorite candidate. Families will also be able to access extensive program resource materials and even manage their payment schedules.

Au Pair Trends 

Edina:  These are great features!  Michael, in your opinion, what are the newest trends in the au pair industry? 
Michael McHugh:  I think the real trend is the industry’s focus on quality over quantity. While the total number of au pairs in the USA might be lower than a couple years ago, the quality and diversity of the candidates is much higher. I think this can only improve the overall perception of the program and lead to new growth.
Edina:  I agree with you about the focus on quality over quantity.  The au pair industry's focus on improving the quality of their programs and the au pairs they recruit will be substantial for host families and their children.  I do see this trend assert itself at several of the au pair agencies, while other programs still run their businesses the same way as they did 10-15 years ago. 
It’s clear that your agency is moving in the right direction. 
Do you foresee any new au pair industry developments down the road? 
Michael McHugh:  I think Asia, and especially China, will play a larger role among the recruiting countries. There are a lot of really impressive companies working in the cultural exchange field there.
I also think that we will see more young Americans traveling abroad to live and work as au pairs. It is such a wonderful experience that helps people gain a broader perspective of the world and a stronger sense of who they are as a person.
Edina:  China seems to be a real magnet for everything these days, and au pairs are no exception!  I do see the start of American youth joining programs to travel abroad as au pairs and we have written about that before on the Clearinghouse.  I think this is an exciting trend and I agree – what a wonderful way to really explore a favorite country, culture and language!
The industry will see American youth going to China, I expect, compared to other countries?  What do you think?
Michael McHugh: Well, as you said, China does have a certain attraction these days. The Chinese Host Families are very excited about the prospects of hosting an American au pair. From what I’ve heard, there are waiting lists of families hoping to take part in the program. 
Edina:  China seems to be the place to be today!  What is your most popular au pair requested by the majority of your host families? 
Michael McHugh:  Families often come to us with a particular country or requirement in mind, but end up matching with someone completely different just because they really 'clicked.'  Every country has such a diversity of personalities, so we encourage families to look beyond country of origin when searching for an au pair. 
That said, there is an increase in requests for Mandarin speaking au pairs and Spanish speaking au pairs.
Edina:  These preferences speak to American parents’ wanting their children to learn either Spanish or Mandarin – the goals or needs of parents seem to drive trends, don’t you agree?
Michael McHugh: I think there are some very practical American parents who understand that these languages will be very useful in the years to come. I believe there is a value in learning any foreign language whether it is Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese or Swedish. Learning a foreign language gives you a true insight into another culture.
Edina:  I agree – and perhaps more American children will grow into adulthood bilingual compared to their grandparents’ and parents’ generations. 
During the au pair orientation training, au pairs undergo the last agency screening.  What do you look for as “red flags” during orientation?

Au Pair Orientation and Training Program in New York

Michael McHugh:  We like to think that our rigorous interview and screening process will identify any 'red flags' before someone is attending an orientation.  But should that occur, something that we would consider a 'red flag' would be if an au pair weren’t engaging in their lessons and activities.

If the au pair seems withdrawn, our Orientation Manager will set aside time to assist the au pair individually and address any concerns. If that doesn’t resolve the issue we will notify the Local Coordinator and host family. Often the au pair is just experiencing jet lag, homesickness, or trouble with being immersed in English; we have experience with helping them through any of these situations.
Edina:  Would you tell us about your au pair training school?
Michael McHugh:  Our orientation and training program in New York City has been completely revamped for 2012. We spent a lot of time researching the latest childcare theories and have incorporated them into a completely new program. Our goal is not just to teach child care techniques, but to instill a child-focused child care philosophy in our au pairs so they can continue learning for their time in the U.S. 
As for the more practical aspects of the program, we believe there is a big difference between simply watching a demonstration of important safety techniques and actually having to perform them over and over until they become second nature. We recently had two au pairs successfully perform the Heimlich maneuver on their children to dislodge food from their airways just as they practiced in training.  Frankly, we think all parents should have this level of training!
Edina:  What fast thinking on the part of your au pairs in such extreme emergencies and good for them!  I absolutely agree parents should learn how to do these basic but life-saving techniques – you just never know when you will need to use them.

Are there any other aspects of the program Au Pair USA is working to improve?

Michael McHugh:  Yes, another aspect of the au pair program that we really wanted to improve on in 2012 was the accident and sickness insurance that agencies provide for the au pairs. I think any au pair will tell you that these policies are confusing and often not immediately recognized by medical care providers.  In 2012 we decided to face this challenge head on and researched all the available options. We are extremely happy to announce that we are now partnering with AETNA Insurance to provide our au pairs with the best insurance available. Not only is this insurance one of the most widely recognized names in the healthcare fields, but also our policy has four times the total coverage required under current State Department regulations. 
Edina:  That is very impressive and I am sure that the au pairs' parents will be delighted!  Is there anything else you want our readers to know about Au Pair USA?
Michael McHugh: InterExchange is such a great company to work for right now. As a non-profit dedicated to the goals of cultural exchange, we do everything with the objective of better facilitating exchange experience for au pairs and host families.
While we have been very successful over the years we made a clear decision to not rest on our laurels. With that in mind we:

  • Have redoubled our efforts at finding and recruiting the best au pairs from the widest diversity of countries possible. 
  • We strengthened our orientation and training program and developed a series of materials to help host families and au pairs work well together throughout the year.
  • Our soon to be launched 2012 InterExchange Passport  program will put all the information families and au pairs need right at their fingertips 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  All this is possible because the staff and the leadership at InterExchange are all true believers in the goals of the au pair program and all cultural exchange programs.
  • Every InterExchange staff member has benefited from living and working abroad so we know what a special experience this is for everyone involved. We get to change people’s lives!

Edina:  Its sounds like we should expect great things from Au Pair USA!  Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with the Clearinghouse - I am sure our host families will enjoy learning more about your agency.
Michael McHugh:  It has been my pleasure! Thanks for all the work you do with Au Pair Clearinghouse.  I think families really appreciate having an unbiased site like yours to educate them about the different aspects of the Au Pair Program and guide them towards choosing the right agency for their needs.
Edina:  Thank you Michael for your kind words about the Clearinghouse.  We are dedicated to keeping our reviews and ratings unbiased and useful and we work hard to make sure there are lots of articles and tips on 'au pairing.'  I look forward to talking to you in the near future about your wonderful program.

 January 2012
Read our Quick Agency Profile for Au Pair USA. Read our entire Review of Au Pair USA

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