I have been a clinical psychologist for almost 20 years. Nine of those years were as an active duty Air Force (AF) psychologist and the remaining years I have worked in support of the Department of Defense (DoD) at the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine (HJF) in collaboration with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP). Additionally, I have been a military spouse for almost 14 years, with 3 of those years overlapping with my active duty service. Both roles have their own rewards as well as their own challenges. And (as you can imagine) when you combine the two, things can get a little interesting.
I was fortunate enough to work for HJF/CDP in a DoD contractor position for nine years and 11 months and across multiple military moves prior to my spouse getting orders overseas last summer. However, I had to resign and consider other options due to not being allowed to continue in my DoD contactor position overseas. It was difficult for me, to say the least, but thankfully my story doesn't end there. Both HJF and CDP worked to get me hired through an overseas agency where I am currently using my Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) status to both live and work in Germany. For those of you not familiar, a SOFA is a multilateral or bilateral agreement that generally establishes a framework under which U.S. military personnel operate in a foreign country and how domestic laws of the foreign jurisdiction apply toward U.S. personnel in that country (Mason, 2012). There were a lot of steps in the hiring process, including getting a German tax ID and German health insurance, as both are requirements for all German employees, but I am successfully working again with just a small gap in my employment.
There is a lot of good in my story. In fact, I think I am one of the luckier military spouses who is part of the workforce. I have been able to remain with the same organization for over a decade and across multiple moves. But that does not mean it has always been easy. I have had to be flexible and have sacrificed work opportunities because of my spouse’s military career. I have also seen the sacrifices made by so many military spouses and know that it is repeatedly identified by military families as a top challenge of military life.
So why is military spouse employment important, you might ask? Well, let me share some numbers with you. The 2020 Demographics Profile of the Military Community (2021) describes the service members and families in the military community in fiscal year 2020. The numbers reflect the total force, both active-duty and the reserve component (Reserve and National Guard personnel combined), and their family members (spouses, children, and adult dependents). Within the DoD, there are more military family members (55%) than military personnel (45%). Just under half (48%) of service members are married, which accounts for the 950,879 military spouses. Additionally, 38% of service members have children (6% are single parents) and 37% of military children are age five or younger. As you can see, there are a lot of military spouses as well as young military children. Both are important when we look at military spouse employment opportunities and challenges.
To get a better understanding of what military families have to say about military spouse employment, let’s look at the most recent Blue Star Families’ annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey (aMFLS) results. The aMFLS is the largest and most comprehensive survey of service members, veterans and their families and the survey results help provide a comprehensive understanding of both the experiences and challenges that military families encounter. The 2021 aMFLS was the 12th annual survey and included experiences from just over 8,000 respondents.
Military spouse employment was the top issue reported for active-duty families in the 2021 aMFLS as identified by 47% of active-duty spouse respondents and 25% of active-duty service member respondents. This is comparable to the 2020 aMFLS results. Spouse employment is consistently identified as a major challenge for military families and impacts multiple other areas of importance (e.g., financial stability, military spouse overall well-being). In fact, across respondent groups, military spouse employment (unemployment or underemployment) was identified as a top contributor to financial stress for military families.
Per the 2021 aMFLS, 42% of spouses are not in the labor force (not working and not looking for work). Of those in the labor force, 80% were employed and 20% were unemployed. This looks pretty good at first glance. However, 63% of employed military spouses reported being underemployed, meaning that they are overqualified, underpaid, and/or underutilized given their positions (Blue Star Families, 2022). I have seen this firsthand with military spouse friends taking positions they are overqualified for just to not have a gap in employment. It can be challenging for military spouses to struggle to find employment that is commensurate with their level of education. I also have friends who decided early on to not pursue employment because they knew it would be a challenge as a military spouse.
Due to the nature of the military lifestyle, many spouses have difficulty finding and maintaining work within their career field. Issues such as moving every few years, having to be more available to assist with family/home related tasks, lack of childcare, living overseas, and difficulty with networking contribute to these challenges. In addition, in one study, some spouses reported bias by employers against hiring military spouses due to the perceived temporary nature of their employment (given frequent relocations) and potentially having weaker resumes compared to those with more stable career experiences (Castaneda & Harrell, 2008).
The two challenges that I hear most frequently from other military spouses are frequent moves and childcare challenges. When we look at the 2021 aMFLS, almost half (47%) of employed active-duty spouse respondents reported that they will be looking for a new job in the next 12 months with the primary reason (33%) being relocation/permanent change of station (PCS). Moving also impacts childcare options. As discussed above, there are a lot of military children under the age of five and if military families cannot find and/or afford childcare, military spouse employment opportunities are limited. In fact, in the 2021 aMFLS one in three spouses of active-duty service members reported not working due to childcare being too expensive. Additionally, due to frequent moves and often being located away from family, it is more difficulty to rely on relatives for childcare, as many civilian families do.
Compared with civilian spouses, military spouses continue to have a lower rate of employment, earn less, and are often underemployed. Per the 2020 aMFLS, this is even more likely for military spouses of color with the unemployment rate being higher in active-duty spouse respondents of color (27% vs. 17%). The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated challenges with increased virtual education for children that requires more guidance from an at-home parent.
It is often said that service members’ families are the backbone or our military. If we are not addressing family issues, we are not going to retain the excellent service members who have stepped up to serve. One initiative that is specifically addressing military spouse employment as well as other key areas is the Five & Thrive initiative developed by the spouse of the Chief Staff of the Air Force, Sharene Brown and her Thrive Team. The initiative is meant to increase attention on the top five quality of life challenges that military families face: childcare, education, healthcare, housing, and spouse employment. You can read more about the Five & Thrive initiative here: https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2877349/csaf-spouse-announces-five-thrive-initiative/
This is the first assignment where we have lived on base as a family. It has been a wonderful experience being surrounded by other military families. I am so impressed by the military spouses I have had the opportunity to interact with, but I also see many of the challenges identified above. I know that not all military spouses are looking for employment, but there are many who would if there were better opportunities and fewer challenges. I am surrounded by so many highly educated and trained individuals, many who would like to be part of the workforce. We need to continue to address these important military family quality of life issues and find ways to overcome identified challenges to help bolster the resilience and readiness of our service members and their families.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Lisa French, Psy.D., is a Senior Military Behavioral Health Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
Blue Star Families. (2021). 2020 military family lifestyle survey comprehensive report. https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/BSF_MFLS_CompReport_FULL.pdf
Blue Star Families. (2022). 2021 military family lifestyle survey comprehensive report. https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/BSF_MFLS_Results2021_ComprehensiveReport_3_22.pdf
Castaneda, L. W. & Harrell, M. C. (2008). Military spouse employment: A grounded theory approach to experiences and perceptions. Armed Forces & Society, 34(3), 389-412. Mason, R. C. (2012, March 15).
Status of forces agreement (SOFA): What is it, and how has it been utilized? (CRS Report No. RL34531). https://sgp.fas.org/crs/natsec/RL34531.pdf
Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community & Family Policy. (2021). 2020 demographics profile of the military community. https://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2020-demographics-report.pdf