Meet Susan, a 32-year-old woman who recently moved to the Grand Forks, N.D. area. Her husband, Todd—an officer in the U.S. Air Force—has been assigned to Grand Forks Air Force Base. The couple and their two children, ages eight and five, moved from Springfield, Va., where Susan had been working as a paralegal.
Now that they are in North Dakota, Susan is having a hard time finding a job within her career field. All she seems to be able to find are food service and retail jobs, which she has no experience with and will not cover the cost of childcare in the area. The family has no local support system to help out while Susan works.
Susan is a fictional character, but she is the typical military spouse who is looking for work in America. A 2017 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation studied military spouses. Citing the Department of Defense, the report states that there are more than 640,000 spouses of active duty service members. They found that 92 percent of these are women, and they are an average of 31.5 years old. The study also shows that 88 percent of these people have education beyond high school. (While approximately 30 percent of workers in the United States has a college degree, around 40 percent of military spouses do.)
All these statistics point to this pool of workers as being at the prime of their earning years and valuable to America’s top employers. Added to that, these skilled workers are motivated to add to their families’ finances and contribute to the workforce. So why is it so hard for military spouses to find fulfilling work that matches their qualifications?
Difficulty Finding—and Keeping—Work
While 12 percent of military spouses are also service members, the rest are civilians trying to fit into the military lifestyle. In Blue Star Families’ 2016 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 79 percent of military spouses said that being married to a service member has hurt their careers. There are several key factors that can make finding and keeping work difficult for this group of workers. Military spouses with degrees have the highest rates of unemployment and the most difficulty finding fulfilling work. Regular moves create upheaval and force them to leave their current positions, regardless of whether the timing is ideal. This disruption makes military spouses lose traction in the trajectory of their careers. They may not be able to find a suitable role within their chosen career or at the responsibility level that they have achieved. Additionally, if he or she has a career that requires a license, crossing state lines—or even country borders—can create issues with jurisdiction.
In some cases, frequent deployments and training can lead to absence of the service member, meaning that the military spouse must handle all childcare and other household responsibilities. Because of the location of their assignment, there may not be a support network available to the military spouse. This puts pressure on the spouse and can lead to increased absenteeism or tardiness. Military spouses also often have trouble finding affordable child care, which hinders their pursuit of education or employment.
The biggest hurdle might be the lack of freedom that a military family faces when being sent on assignment. Few service members have the ability to select their assignments, and most must accept their fate and make the best of their new location and situation. The lack of employment opportunities creates stress and influences a family’s decision to stay in or leave the military—factors that hurt military readiness, retention, and recruiting.
Support for Job Seekers
These issues have attracted attention recently, from both private industry and government groups. Supporting military spouses is now on everyone’s radar, leading to increased measures to help employ them.
In early 2018, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced the Military Spouse Employment Act and the Jobs and Childcare for Military Families Act to help reduce military spouse unemployment and examine the effects of frequent moves and reassignments on military spouses’ careers. Among other benefits, the act encourages the Department of Defense (DoD) to submit a plan on how to best support military spouse entrepreneurship on military bases. It also instructs the DoD to put in place a program to increase the number of cleared childcare providers at each duty station.
Additionally, the Department of Labor has resources for military spouses. Federal agencies can use a non-competitive hiring process to fill positions with military spouses. Eligibility for work on either a temporary or permanent basis depends on several factors. The person qualifies if he or she is:
- relocating with his or her spouse due to Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders
- a spouse of a service member who is 100 percent disabled because of a service-connected injury
- a spouse of a service member killed on active duty
The Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) helps connect military spouses with jobs or trains them for a new career field. The MSEP partners with businesses to provide jobs to military spouses—around 100 companies so far—through a Career Portal. Military spouses can also receive up to $4,000 across two years to cover education for a portable career field. The list of careers includes health care, education, financial services, hospitality management, and skilled trades like carpentry and plumbing. Other resources include resume and cover letter assistance, interview preparation tips, and career counseling.
Private companies are in on the action as well. Starbucks has a military employment program that has helped hire more than 21,000 veterans and military spouses since 2013 and has committed to hiring 25,000 by 2025. Along with Starbucks, Capital One, Prudential Financial, Blackstone, Amazon, Microsoft and other major global companies also are part of a coalition with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation on the “Hiring 100,000 Military Spouses” campaign.