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Military Spouses Can Be the Firepower Employers Need to Fill Jobs

Alice Riethman, SHRM-CP, recalls the employment challenges she encountered as a military spouse when her husband’s job as an active-duty U.S. Air Force pilot and the tempo of military operations moved them around the U.S.

She’s one of many military spouses—92 percent of whom are female—who have faced employment barriers because of the relocations they experience every two to four years.

The resumes of military spouses often are “messy” because of wide gaps in their employment history, said Riethman, an employment and litigation attorney and workplace consultant at Kilborn Riethman Consulting in Spokane, Wash.

 “In the early days of our life together … we rarely saw each other because of conflicting schedules, and I wondered how we could have a family in that kind of situation,” Riethman said. However, they have moved “far less than some families.”

“I know I cannot begin to know the sacrifices many have made with more frequent moves,” she said, noting she has been fortunate “to build and flex my career around what was doable for our family” that includes two children ages 2 and 4.

But employment prospects can be dim for military spouses in other fields.

Among the 540,000 civilian spouses of active-duty service members, 270,000 are employed, and about one-third of that number work part time, according to a 2024 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

“They worked part time because they needed flexible schedules to care for children and to accommodate frequent military moves,” the GAO report stated. “They reported challenges like being underpaid, working outside their career field, and lacking opportunities for career advancement.”

New research from SHRM and the SHRM Foundation that will be released at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2024 (SHRM24) shows less than half of the 1,076 HR professionals surveyed agree, to any extent, that their organization understands the unique challenges faced by military spouses. The survey, conducted from Feb. 26 to March 24, 2024, was sponsored by USAA and will be discussed during a June 26 concurrent session at SHRM24.

The research also found that nearly 2 in 3 organizations have not implemented any strategies to retain military spouses. Among those who have done so, initiatives centered on child care support services, flexible scheduling or remote work options, and military-spouse-specific employee resource groups were the most effective.

Recruiting, Retention Tips

Riethman—who also has served as an HR trainer, HR generalist, executive director, and HR consultant—offered the following recommendations:

  • Be welcoming in your branding.

Indicate on your organization’s website that you welcome individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, including military spouses, to the talent pool and that you take into account the impact of military service on families.

Some employers are reluctant to hire the spouses of active-duty service members, knowing they likely will be short-term employees. Other potential talent pools, though, have shorter average tenures. The average tenure of nonmilitary individuals ages 20 to 24 is 1.2 years, and the average tenure for those ages 25 to 34 is 2.8 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With military spouses, employers have an idea of their likely length of tenure since active-duty service members, on average, receive permanent change of station orders every two to four years.

  • Be strategic in your job postings.

One place to start, Riethman said, is the family support service offices at your local military installations. There also are websites such as the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative.

  • Re-evaluate how you assess resumes.

“When I was taught to review resumes, what we were looking for was the unreliability of people making frequent [job] changes,” Riethman said.  A two-year gap in employment history was “a red flag.”

However, if the applicant is a military spouse, employment gaps might be the result of overseas assignments in countries that do not permit the civilian spouse to work for security reasons.

In jobs requiring licensing or certification—in fields such as teaching, nursing, and law—obtaining new credentials when relocating to another state can be a lengthy and sometimes expensive process and often can’t occur until after residency is established, adding to the employment history gap.

“The burden of applying for a new license with each move is high for the 35 percent of military spouses in the labor force who work in occupations that require state licensing,” according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Managers can be trained to ascertain if employment gaps on resumes are the result of military moves.

  • Consider adding a box to online job applications that allows the job seeker to indicate military spouse status.

This would prevent the employer from automatically disregarding those with military-related employment gaps. Riethman recalled one employer that even moved those applications to the head of the line for review.

  • Consider offering flexibility when appropriate.

For many spouses, flexibility comes from the employer understanding their need for last-minute schedule changes, Riethman said: “They may learn 10 hours in advance their [active-duty] spouse is going to be out of town the next three weeks and [they] might need to change shifts” to accommodate their child’s school or day care start or end time.

Flexibility also may include being considered for transfers—internally or to another site when the employee must leave the area. For many military spouses, the ability to work remotely is the gold standard, Riethman said.

Nearly 3 in 4 organizations have not implemented any strategies to recruit and hire military spouses, according to the research from SHRM and the SHRM Foundation. Among those who have, the most effective strategies were implementing remote onboarding processes, communicating flexible scheduling/remote work options, and modifying existing positions to be more flexible.

As employers invoke a return-to-office policy, they should consider that military spouse employees likely will have to resign Riethman pointed out. The spouse may have caregiving responsibilities or other reasons for not being able to physically report to an office. Employers should keep in mind, she added, the potential cost of replacing that employee.

  • Make sure your Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) policies are current and include military leave provisions.

Military families, including the parents of active-duty service members, may be entitled to time off under the FMLA and surrounding deployment activities.

For example, military bases typically host going-away events and ceremonies for children whose parents are deploying—likely requiring the military spouse to be gone for several hours during the workday.

Other SHRM Resources:

California Spousal Military Leave Policy, SHRM resource

Should Military Spouses Have to Sacrifice Their Careers?, SHRM Online, Nov. 11, 2019


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