Military Spouses Face Employment, Advancement Barriers

By Stephenie Overman Mar 9, 2012

Military spouses aren’t looking for special treatment in the job market, said Deanie Dempsey, wife of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We want fair treatment.”

At a military spouse summit held March 2-3, 2012, in Arlington, Va., Dempsey and other presenters told and listened to stories of the career barriers military spouses face because of their frequent relocation. The summit was sponsored by the military and veteran membership organization

Ninety-five percent of military spouses are women, said Aggie Byers, who works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where she is responsible for military spouse issues.

“Seventy-seven percent of spouses want or need work.”

And while military spouses are well educated and highly qualified for a range of careers, said Byers, “they face a 26 percent unemployment rate and a 25 percent wage gap” compared to their civilian counterparts.

Program Support

Byers, who spoke at the summit and later in an interview with SHRM Online, announced that the DOD’s Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) new website, Military Spouse Career Portal, is up and running. The site links companies committed to hiring military spouses with military spouses seeking employment.

MSEP is part of the DOD’s Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO) initiative, which seeks to strengthen the education and career opportunities of military spouses. Byers directs implementation of SECO.

The MSEP portal already has nearly 100 business partners who have hired more than 10,000 military spouses, according to Byers. “We ask the partners to sign a statement of commitment to identify and promote career employment opportunities. We ask them to mentor new corporate partners about how to hire military spouses. We ask them to document and provide data on military spouses they hire.”

A key part of the program is a commitment to provide military spouses with portable career opportunities as they are forced to relocate, Byers said. “If, say, a medical service company hires somebody in Virginia, when the family moves to Washington state [the employee] should have an equal job and not have to take a back step in tenure or in seniority. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible for military spouses because they almost always are starting out at the bottom” at each location.

Partners are mainly large companies such as Amazon, Bank of America, Dell, CACI, GEICO and Home Depot, she said, but MSEP is willing to consider small companies “if they have jobs and are willing to hire and retain military spouses.”

The goal is “to level the playing field for the spouses rather than make a special category” for them, Byers said. Military spouses “have resilience [and] adaptability and are effective under pressure. They have a strong work ethic and are highly educated, significantly higher than the general population. That’s not well known.”

The feedback from employers is that military spouses “are some of their best employees,” but often they don’t advance in the workforce “because of relocation and of not being able to get stability in their career.”

Kathleen Moakler, a military spouse and the government relations director of the National Military Family Association, noted that the association offers a range of services to military spouses and dependents. For example, the association gives scholarships to provide educational assistance ranging from GED programs, vocational training, professional certification and graduate school.

“You need to know how many people are working for you behind the scenes,” Moakler told the summit attendees.

Occupational Licensure Portability

One area that military organizations are focusing their efforts on is to make occupational state licensures more portable, according to several of the speakers at the summit. One-third of employed military spouses are in career fields that require a state license, such as some health care professionals, teachers, accountants, pharmacy technicians, medical billers, child care providers, dental hygienists, real estate brokers and speech pathologists.

But a license that is valid in one state isn’t always valid in another, meaning that spouses cannot work until they complete the licensing requirements for their new state of residence. Some states don’t endorse another state’s license.

Dempsey told summit participants that she has met with first lady Michelle Obama to discuss military spouse employment and the licensing issue. In February 2012, Obama announced a goal to have legislation that supports license portability for military spouses in all 50 states by 2014. At the time of the announcement, 12 states had passed legislation supporting spouse license portability, and several others had introduced legislation.

“We don’t want people who aren’t qualified,” said Dempsey, “but if they are qualified, why not make licenses portable?”

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.​


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