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Military Spouse Appreciation Day Means Facing Tough Employment Challenges

According to Hire Heroes USA, an organization that specializes in veteran employment, the military spouse unemployment rate is four times the national average of civilian spouses seeking employment.

During my previous entrepreneur interview with Cameron Cruse and Lisa Bradley of R. Riveter, I mentioned that during my eight years on active duty (and two years in the reserves), my own spouse faced the very common, often painful employment problem experienced by thousands of military spouses nationwide: the inability to find meaningful work.

According to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, military dependents report severe employment challenges due to numerous factors.

Among the factors cited for military spouse unemployment were the servicemember’s absence and the heavy parenting responsibilities related to deployment. Another contributing factor that spouses reported was employer stigmatization, often driven by the employer’s concern that the spouse will be abruptly forced to leave work due to the servicemember’s relocation.

The RAND study also found that military spouses are more likely to have finished high school and to have a college education than their civilian counterparts.

On paper, military spouses should be more employable, not less!

In fact, Hire Heroes USA states that a staggering 73% of working military spouses possess a four-year college degree or higher. But 51% are still looking for full-time employment.

Military Spouse Appreciation Day: A Good Time to Reexamine the Military Spouse Unemployment Problem

The Friday before Mother’s Day has been designated as Military Spouse Appreciation Day. This year, that day falls on Friday, May 7.

As we celebrate everything that military spouses contribute to the military family, perhaps it’s time for a fresh look at military spouse unemployment and examine a few strategies that these spouses can employ.

Nerissa C. is digital communication professional with American Public University System and a former military spouse whose husband recently retired after 24 years in the U.S. Air Force.

To investigate some of the challenges that other spouses face, Nerissa recently reached out to her network on social media, including several private Facebook groups dedicated to military spouse support.

In the private Facebook group “Military Spouse Professional Networking” Nerissa asked what obstacles, big and small, exist that “milspouses” must face when seeking employment.

Some of the responses she received are eye-opening. In their own words:

What obstacles, big and small, exist that milspouses must face when seeking employment?

“Constantly moving, experience, connections, and gaps in my resume.”

This is, perhaps, one of the strongest challenges spouses face. How do they rise through the ranks at a company when their active duty spouse gets PCS orders to Alaska?

Granted, the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has reduced the stigma associated with remote work. When companies realized that employees who work from home are actually more productive than when they are in the office, many companies went all-in on remote work.

Despite the advantages of remote work, many companies simply need employees present, such as healthcare professionals.

Furthermore, constantly moving creates gaps in resumes that stand out to an employer like a big red warning sign.

“Lack of industry where we live.”

This is another significant challenge to spouse employment. Many U.S. military bases and posts are in locations that just aren’t conducive to commerce. Ever been stationed in Guam? It’s beautiful… but it’s not exactly the financial center of the universe.

Guam has some retail, healthcare, food service, and education jobs, but that’s about it; unless the milspouse is fortunate enough to work for Uncle Sam.

“License portability and transfer between states.”

This challenge is huge and likely worthy of its own article. Stateside, state licensure controls the work of teachers, land surveyors, doctors, lawyers, cosmetologists, nurses, building contractors, counselors, therapists, and electricians, among many others.

The inability to easily transfer a counseling or nursing license, for example, means there will be long stretches of time where a dual-income family drops to a single income while the spouse jumps through the new state’s hoops to get licensed.

“Having to lie about being a spouse to get a job.”

This is, arguably, the most heartbreaking answer. Several spouses chimed in with their own comments:

“Having to take lower paying jobs because they know you won’t be staying long term.”

“I was offered a position in management. While filling out my paperwork, the hiring manager asked what brought me to the area. I told him my husband was active duty Air Force and they rescinded the job offer stating I was not stable. I was already offered and already accepted the position. So basically, they fired me.”

“Yeah, that’s why I don’t tell my employers I’m a spouse until after they hire me.”

“I don’t mention it. At all. The hiring process doesn’t ask you if you are a spouse, so I don’t disclose it. If they ask me what brought me to the area, I say ‘job opportunities because it’s true.”

Solutions to Military Spouse Employment Challenges

There is much that both the DoD and civilian employers can do to improve military spouse employment. The RAND study earlier called on the Department of Defense to increase the affordability and accessibility of both education and military childcare programs.

Other suggestions for the DoD include:

  • Change the mindset of military leaders who may take an antiquated view of the role of a military spouse. It’s no longer the 1950s.
  • Design employment programs or policies that recognize that different groups of spouses work for different reasons.
  • Continue to address military childcare availability and affordability, including extended-hours and part-time childcare.
  • Pursue relationships with local employers and large, nationally prevalent employers to improve hiring conditions for military spouses.
  • Consider incentives or requirements for military contractors to prioritize hiring military spouses.
  • Reexamine the priority system for civil service jobs, including whether military spouses should receive higher priority than non-retiree veterans.
  • Address licensing and certification hurdles to help relocating spouses continue their careers.
  • Raise awareness about existing spouse employment programs.

This is a complicated issue with no easy answer. However, we have the tools available to start addressing some of the challenges that military spouses face either seeking or maintaining employment.

Ultimately, we’re talking about vast quality-of-life improvements and the perception among servicemembers that the military is serious about their concerns.

In fact, failure to fix these problems may lead to more servicemembers leaving the military and pursuing more family-friendly careers. This, in turn, could affect our nation’s force readiness posture.

The military spouse employment challenge is nothing less than a national security issue.

It’s time we fix it.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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