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Military Spouse Unemployment Needs More Creative Solutions

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By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InMilitary. Veteran, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.

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

During my previous entrepreneur interview with Cameron Cruse and Lisa Bradley of R. Riveter, I mentioned that during my eight years on active duty, my own spouse faced the very common, 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 a number of factors.

Among the factors cited for military spouse unemployment were the servicemember’s absence and the heavy parenting responsibilities related to that absence. 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 live in a metropolitan area, to have finished high school and to have a college education, as compared to their civilian counterparts. On paper, military spouses should be more employable, not less.

In fact, Hire Heroes USA states that a staggering 73% of military spouses working with their organization possess a four-year 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 10.

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.

For most American middle-class families, having two incomes is a necessity, not a luxury. Michelle Still Mehta, writing for Pacific Standard, sees it as a macro-economic problem for the country. She observes, “Military spouse unemployment represents a largely underutilized talent pool with tremendous potential for our economy. In calculating the social cost of military spouse unemployment and underemployment, Blue Star Families estimates that the total cost to taxpayers due to lost tax revenue and unemployment compensation expenditures is about $1 billion a year.”

According to the Atlantic, if a military spouse is a woman — and nine out of 10 active-duty military spouses are women — the problem is exacerbated. Women already face the motherhood penalty when they seek employment. Data from the Blue Star Military Family Lifestyle survey shows that almost half (49%) of male military spouse respondents reported working full-time, compared to just 27% of female military spouse respondents.

DoD and Hire Heroes: Working to Resolve Military Spouse Unemployment

The Department of Defense (DoD) has started attacking the problem of military spouse unemployment and underemployment through their Military Spouse Employment Partnership program. In fact, over 390 companies have signed up with this program; many of them offer remote work opportunities exclusively for military spouses.

In addition, the nonprofit organization Hire Heroes USA promotes its Serving Spouses program, which offers career coaching tailored specifically to military spouses. Military spouses who register for the program are individually paired with a Transition Specialist on their team. That specialist understands the unique challenges military spouses face in the job search, like communicating gaps in employment and understanding transferable skills.

Remote Work Could Provide Useful Jobs for Military Spouses

Some of the best opportunities for military spouses may be remote work. According to Owl Labs, 46% of global companies allow remote work and 16% are fully remote. This infographic from Inc. Magazine shows that, according to their research, workers tend to be 20% more productive when they get to tackle creative projects remotely.

Remote work is an opportunity not just to help fix military spouse unemployment, but also make companies more profitable and productive. A typical business can save $11,000 per person per year simply by letting its employees work from home 50% of the time, according to a recent analysis by Global Workplace Analytics.

The challenge of military spouse unemployment is not insurmountable. These spouses are heroes in their own right, juggling childcare, regular relocations and supporting their spouse’s active-duty schedule. That includes long deployments in which the spouse is alone for months at a time.

We owe it to military spouses to think creatively about their unemployment challenge and come up with workable solutions.

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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