Staff Perspective: Employment Concerns for Military Spouses

Staff Perspective: Employment Concerns for Military Spouses

Photo courtesy of MsJaxin Photography

While Veteran employment issues have received substantial attention, the difficulties related to military spouse unemployment and underemployment have long existed in the background. Recently, multiple studies and surveys have turned the spotlight onto these issues and the individual and societal problems they present for military families. The Military Spouse Employment Report, published in early 2014 by the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), stated that female military spouses consistently report rates of unemployment nearly three times those of civilians, even when other factors such as level of education, age, and geographic location were taken into account. The same report noted that 90 percent of employed spouses reported being “underemployed”, meaning that they possessed more education and/or experience than was required by their current position. The issues of military spouse unemployment and underemployment are estimated to cost society as much as $1 billion annually.

The extensive impact of these issues should not be particularly surprising to an audience of behavioral healthcare providers. Why? Because the issues that make finding and keeping appropriate employment so difficult for military spouses are the same issues that contribute to and cause the majority of the stress associated with military family life. Frequent relocation, extended deployments of the Service member, and frequent separation from family and other sources of social support all contribute negatively to the ability of a military spouse to successfully obtain and keep long-term, adequate employment.  As behavioral healthcare providers, it is important to be sensitive not only to these normative stressors of military life, but also to the added stress that job-finding problems and related financial difficulties can place on military spouses and their families.

Consider the experience of Jaime, a long-term Navy spouse. She has been married to her husband for more than 15 years, a period during which her family has experienced all of the classic stressors of military life. During her husband’s military career, Jaime’s family has moved a total of 11 times, including multiple cross-country moves, as well as OCONUS assignments to Hawaii and Japan.  Jaime’s husband also has served several extended deployments, including a five-month assignment in Iraq that unexpectedly extended into a 15-month tour. While some of their duty stations placed them close to family and friends, others left them hundreds or thousands of miles away from their social support resources.

Jaime, like so many military spouses, has found securing and keeping a good job to be a continuing challenge. “I was 25 when I married my husband and worked as a receptionist at a law firm.  Most of the employment I held prior to marriage was office or front desk receptionist work,” Jaime explained. Not long after they married, Jaime was able to find another job as a receptionist, but soon found it too difficult to continue working outside of the home. With her husband stationed on a deployable ship and away for long stretches of time, Jaime had few local resources for childcare for her toddler.  After several more moves and additions to their family, Jaime continued to look for employment and continued to be met with resistance. “With every new relocation, the biggest hurdle has been having to explain with every job interview why we have moved so much and why they should hire me even though they know I will likely move again within a few years,“  Jaime noted.  She has even been told explicitly “…that I’m qualified and they love my personality but they are looking to hire someone that will be a long term employee. [That] is something I can never give to them.”

Although the challenges for military spouses in finding and keeping a good job can be many, there are also some unique benefits to the military lifestyle that may facilitate the process. Positive attributes associated with military families, including resilience and flexibility, can help spouses adapt and overcome many of the associated employment obstacles.  In Jaime’s case, with some creativity and hard work, she was able to turn a talent and hobby that she enjoyed into a job that better fit her ever-changing military lifestyle. As Jaime described it, “[T]aking pictures of my children … quickly blossomed into people wanting to pay me for photographing their families.”  The photography business that she started nearly 10 years ago, MsJaxin Photography, has moved with her to each new duty station. She has even found ways to cater to fellow military families, including taking family photos for Service members, providing photography services during deployments and homecomings, and documenting military ceremonies and special events. While she has had substantial success in attracting and keeping clients, Jaime still finds some challenges related to her military life. “[W]ith every move comes the hassle of having to start from scratch again to build clientele,” she explained. “[But] photography is something I can do my best to continue to be successful with and take with me everywhere I go.” 

Being flexible and creative in considering job opportunities can be very helpful to military spouses when tackling difficulties in finding employment. As is so often said in the behavioral health and medical fields “meeting people where they are” can be a successful strategy in helping spouses to address employment issues and related stressors. Job opportunities may exist in the military community itself or general skills may be applied more specifically to the military population, as Jaime demonstrated by targeting aspects of her photography business to a military clientele. Other military spouses have minimized the challenges of frequent relocation by seeking distance or online opportunities such as online teaching or teleworking opportunities for standard office jobs.

In addition, initiatives by the federal government and the Department of Defense (DoD), as well as many reputable public and private organizations, have established a variety of support programs and services for military spouses seeking employment. A comprehensive list of resources, including links to service branch-specific programs focused on spouse employment initiatives, can be found on the Real Warriors Employment Resources for Military Spouses website.  Some examples include:

  • Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP)  – established by the DoD in 2011 as part of the broader Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO) effort. Per its website, MSEP “creates employment connections that provide companies with direct access to military spouses seeking career opportunities and spouses with direct access to employers who are actively recruiting.”
  • Hiring Our Heroes – also established in 2011 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The program, a nationwide initiative to help veterans, transitioning service members, and military spouses find meaningful employment opportunities, has confirmed more than 500,000 hires by their partnering companies.
  • Blue Star Spouse Employment Toolkit – provided for download by Blue Star Families (BSF). The toolkit is described as “a comprehensive career guide, developed exclusively for military spouses, that targets and addresses the unique employment challenges military spouses face.”

Jennifer M. Phillips is the program evaluator for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. In this capacity, she coordinates and carries out program evaluation efforts to assess the progress and effectiveness of EBP trainings and other CDP programs.