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Military Spouses Face Uphill Battle for Career Success


Even as a massive looming drawdown casts a dark pall over the career prospects of uniformed servicemembers themselves, their spouses are also facing significant challenges in their own careers. The unemployment rate among military spouses is over 25 percent – more than four times the national average. And many military spouses who are working are employed at jobs with pay, benefits and status far below what they could expect if they were not limited by their spouse’s military status.

An excellent essay by Marine Lieutenant Jesse Sloman brings the issue into tight focus. Today’s junior officers – college graduates who are overwhelmingly married to other college graduates. Sloman points out that the poor career prospects for military spouses are becoming a significant retention consideration for our valuable core of combat-experienced junior officers.

Consider the difficulties a young educated woman faces when her husband commissions into the armed forces. As she watches her friends enter the workforce and embark on their new careers, she will almost certainly be forced to move to an entirely new community with little in the way of local employment options. If she is lucky enough to find a good job, her excitement will undoubtedly be tempered by the knowledge that within a year or two she'll be forced to move and start over. Every time she begins a new job search she'll be competing against not just all the other recently arrived spouses, but also against non-military locals who employers know will not be leaving in the near future.

The numbers attest to the difficulties spouses face in finding employment. A 2004 Rand Corporation study found that military spouses are less likely to be employed than their civilian peers and earn less money when they are employed. This holds true even when they are compared against civilian spouses with similar employability characteristics. Given these obstacles, it's little wonder that 85 percent of military spouses say they either want or need work. Of those who are employed, it's not uncommon to find spouses working in positions for which they are manifestly overqualified. I know a former government lawyer currently employed at a nearby unit as a Family Readiness Officer, a job that does not even require a bachelor's degree.

A number of comments from the story serve to illustrate the significant financial cost that these military spouses – overwhelmingly women – face.

One commenter weighs in:

My wife and I both hold advanced degrees. I commissioned three weeks after she graduated with a Masters in Public Administration from George Washington University. She has not held a steady job since.  In the past two years, I have lived in three states and two countries. This has forced us to decide whether it is best for her to stay in one place and apart from me, or to keep moving with me and search for jobs that she never needed to spend tuition on an MPA to obtain.

This is not an Army "commitment problem."  Her peers are making huge advances in the workplace and building a foundation on which their careers will grow.  We are paying back student loans, saving for a family, and living off one salary. For us this is the most difficult challenge. Our peers, who are building their household together and planning for their financial future together, are doing so together, on two salaries and with mutual professional satisfaction. We are finding that we cannot compete in a commercial market, a housing market, a school market, or a retirement savings market, that is rapidly adjusting to a dual salaried household.

Another commenter, Maggie11, writes:

I am the wife of a JO currently stationed at Camp Lejeune. I am also an attorney. I have finally found work in the booming metropolis that is Jacksonville, NC, with the caveat that I was offered only part-time work with no expectation of partnership (as everyone knows we will pcs in a couple of years). Further, I make 1/5th the salary that I made when we were married 5 years ago (my pre-Marine Corps life), and, to put that in perspective, my former law school and law firm peers are currently law partners making 3-4 times what I was making 5 years ago. Put simply, the lost income is staggering. Only I am responsible for my choices in life, and I certainly don't regret mine, as I love my husband and the Marine Corps very much. But I never imagined it would be so difficult to find work. I have applied for countless gov't positions -- anything to get my proverbial foot in the door, mostly contract procurement jobs for which a college degree is not required -- and have never gotten so much as an interview.

While most of these women knew what they were signing up for – at least in the short term, there have been some long-term, structural changes in the economy that magnify the cost of becoming a military officer’s spouse for, say, an eight-year hitch on active duty. A recent survey indicates that employers are now actively screening out applicants who have spent more than six months out of the work force. Rand Ghayad decided to test the employers’ willingness to take a chance on applicants who have been out of work for longer than six months. He sent out hundreds of identical resumes to a variety of different jobs, substantially identical except for this: One group showed they had been out of the work force for six months or more. The other showed a much smaller gap. The results were devastating: Spending six months out of work is a permanent disaster.

Long-term unemployment is a terrifying trap. Once you've been out of work for six months, there's little you can do to find work. Employers put you at the back of the jobs line, regardless of how strong the rest of your resume is. After all, they usually don't even look at it.

This reality is not well-known among senior military planners in Washington. After all, they themselves have largely never experienced the private sector. If they did, it was as policy wonks in Washington – a whole different reality than a 32 year-old woman with a bachelors degree in communication married to a 1st lieutenant or captain at Fort Sill. When he ETSs, she will go home to an environment where she will be nearly unemployable except at the entry level positions currently being bid on by recent college graduates – and will have a hard time getting interviewed even for those positions, because most employers won’t give her a second look.

A decade or two ago, there was enough slack in the job market to absorb military spouses, even after long periods away. Those days are over, and they are likely to be over for a long time. Maybe permanently.

To be fair to the military, it is not the DoD’s job to provide employment to spouses. They have plenty on their plate already. But they do need to navigate a current economic environment in which it is going to be much more difficult for them to retain the best talent – and providing a positive long-term experience for military members and their spouses is a big part of that retention process. This is especially true during the drawdown process, when the military cannot even offer job security to those already in the service.

The military is making some moves in the right direction. The Military Spouse Employment Program is doing some good work, and has potential. But the network of employers willing to commit is still pathetically small, and many of the jobs they offer are not exactly anything to brag about, given the talent pool.

Melissa King, a military family employment specialist in Crestview, FL, has published a series of helpful, value-added tips for military job-seekers over at Spousebuzz.com. One of them: Check out www.servicelocator.com. This site can help give you some local intel on whatever job market your family is PCSing to.

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