BOSTON — Paging Mary Poppins.
OK, so today's nannies don't arrive with a parrot-head umbrella and a carpetbag full of tricks, but more working parents are seeing them as a "practically perfect" solution in these post-Louise-Woodward times.
In fact, many candidates for nanny jobs now have resumes that would look good to Fortune 500 companies: college degrees, years of experience, specialized training. Perhaps more important, they let parents feel confident their children are well cared for in the safety of their own homes.
But the cruel fact is that, even as nannies are more qualified and demand for them is soaring, they are out of the economic grasp of most American families. "If you don't offer a good salary, the only people who will go into the profession are people who can't do anything else," says Jackie Williams, head of a nanny agency, who pays her own nanny $10 an hour.
The 1964 movie doesn't tell how much George Banks of Cherry Tree Lane paid Ms. Poppins, but a middle-income nanny today commands $350 a week - $100 more than just two years ago, according to a survey by Nanny News. In big cities like New York, experienced nannies earn as much as $1,000 a week.
While nannies have long been employed by the wealthy, America's booming economy has made it possible for a greater number of parents to shell out more for quality child care. The number of children cared for by nannies has more than doubled since 1977 - from 300,000 to about 700,000.
But that same golden economy - and the tight labor market - made it equally possible for prospective nannies to find jobs in other fields. The result: a huge seller's market for high-quality caregivers.
Part of the salary hike, say nanny placement agencies, can be attributed to an industry that has come of age. Last month, U.S. News & World Report listed "nanny" as one of its 20 hot job tracks for 1999.
"It's become recognized as a profession now," says Betty Davis, owner of In Search of a Nanny in Danvers, Mass. "These are not baby sitters."
Take Tammy Schweitzer. A former sales manager from Birmingham, Mich., she has 10 years of experience as a nanny.
"I love it," she says of her career. "You get to play. You get to make mud pies."
Ms. Schweitzer, who ran a support group for her peers in Fairfield County, Conn., where salaries run about $600 to $800 a week, has seen a "major shift" in pay over the past several years. She also says parents are more willing to offer benefits such as health insurance and bonuses - another sign of what Nanny News editor Mary Klurman calls "the maturation of the industry."
The Nanny News survey of 300 respondents nationwide found that all nannies were receiving paid vacations, 60 percent got paid sick days, more than 40 percent received health insurance, and 20 percent got cash bonuses. Other benefits include health-club memberships and 401(k)s.
The Internet, too, is partly responsible for the rise in salaries. It allowed nannies to "unionize," says Ms. Williams of I Love My Nanny in West Hartford, Conn. - to compare notes about pay rates and to shop the Web for the best offer.
"Being a nanny should really be seen as a career, and the benefits should reflect that," says Eve Coffey, a social worker and mother of two in Winchester, Mass. Her nanny - who recently switched to part time to go to college - receives health and disability insurance, paid vacation, holidays and sick days, and yearly raises. "I really see her as a partner in raising our children."
Once they've found that partner, many parents go to great lengths to keep her.
For example, how does full-time pay for part-time work sound? Ms. Davis and Williams both have clients who continued to pay their nannies full salaries when the kids went to school - just to be sure of trustworthy care. Another of Davis's clients paid for her nanny's college education.
While experts laud the increase in professionals, "it doesn't make it any more affordable," says online childcare expert Judith Lederman of Irvington, N.Y.
In fact, most middle-class families can't afford in-home child care. Some turn to au pairs, although that option has become decidedly less popular since British au pair Louise Woodward was convicted last year of killing a child in her care. The number of au pairs in the US has dropped from 11,000 in the mid-1990s to 3,000 this year, according to the US Information Agency, which oversees the program.
Other parents - some estimates say the majority - pay nannies under the table or hire illegal immigrants.
"It's tricky," Ms. Coffey says of the jump in nanny salaries. "It does make it a little more out of reach [for many families]." Many of her acquaintances send their children to day care, or, if they work part time, hire a student to baby-sit after school.
For many families, Ms. Lederman does not see enough experienced help. "There were only 14 nanny agencies when I researched my book ["Searching for Mary Poppins"], so really, how many experienced people could there be?... Overall, I think there is a supply and demand problem."
Williams disagrees, and says she has plenty of nannies - for those able to pay the asking price. "If you're looking for a housekeeper/nanny that you want to pay less than minimum wage, then there's a shortage."