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Should Military Spouses Have to Sacrifice Their Careers?

Job portability could be a solution for spouses and employers

A mother and daughter sitting on a couch while using a laptop.

​On Veterans Day, as we honor those who have served in the nation's military, we should also remember the sacrifices made by military service members' spouses. This group of mostly women are constantly uprooted, following their loved ones around the country and overseas at the expense of their own jobs and careers.

Military spouses may have to move as often as every two years. Many say employers are biased against them because of gaps in their employment history, and they often are either excluded from veterans' hiring initiatives or lumped into programs that don't account for their unique obstacles.

In 2017, the unemployment rate for active duty military spouses was 9.4 percent, compared to 3.6 percent for the country overall and 3.5 percent for veterans. Underemployment is also much higher and studies show that military spouses earn less than similar full-time workers, said Michael Haynie, the executive director at Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans & Military Families.

"The average personal income of military spouses is less than that of their civilian counterparts, they are underpaid relative to their peers and relocating reduces the earning potential of military spouses," Haynie said. "In addition, due to repeated relocations, military spouses often sacrifice employment benefits such as seniority or long-term retirement savings associated with employment longevity."

Veteran unemployment is at a historic low, "but for some reason we're not able to rally the country around military spouse unemployment," said Elizabeth O'Brien, senior director of the Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Program at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Military Veterans]

Job Portability

Offering military spouses remote working arrangements or internal job transfers is an underutilized practice that could help employers retain valuable talent, said Rosalinda Maury, director of applied research and analytics at the Institute for Veterans & Military Families. "Job portability can minimize the difficulties related to frequent moves. However, some employers either do not have the policies and practices in place to offer portable positions or simply don't realize this is an issue or that military spouses are having these challenges."

Nearly all spouses (97 percent) surveyed by the Institute for Veterans & Military Families said they would take advantage of remote employment opportunities if offered by their current employer. Over 75 percent of respondents feel employers are not sufficiently aware of the employment issues they face and almost 90 percent said that the lack of job portability had impacted their ability to advance professionally.

Survey respondents said that employers could take several steps to demonstrate that they support military spouses:

  • Show an understanding of military spouse resumes.
  • Track military spouse hiring, retention and internal mobility.
  • Require recurrent training of hiring managers, recruiters and supervisors on military spouse policies.
  • Offer job transfer, remote employment and flexible work schedule options.

Occupational Licensing

Restrictive state regulations around work licensure is another fixable problem impacting the 34 percent of military spouses who are in licensed professions.

Marcus Beauregard, the director of the State Liaison Office at the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and his team have been working with states to improve the flexibility of occupational licensure for military spouses.

"States should be able to get a military spouse a license in about 30 days," he said—at least a temporary one while certifying bodies verify the spouse's documents, which can take a few months to pull together.

"That way the military spouse can get to work quickly and fulfill all the requirements of the state," he said. "Our long-term solution is called Interstate Compacts for Occupations. Essentially, a spouse gets to have one license in a home state, and then to use that license in all other member states without any other licensing requirements. Nurses are doing it; physical therapists are doing it. We're seeing more of these, and we're working now with teachers and occupational therapists to get a compact going in those areas as well."

Help Is Out There

One way to "really move the needle on military spouse employment and underemployment is working with industry, identifying in-demand labor-market-connected credentials, and then finding the means and mechanisms to put those credentials in the hands of spouses," Haynie said.

The Institute for Veterans & Military Families, with the help of corporate partners like JPMorgan Chase and Accenture, created a program called Onward to Opportunity to provide career training, professional certifications and job placement support to transitioning service members, members of the Reserve or National Guard, veterans and military spouses.

It's been open to military spouses for about five years now and offers certifications in HR, cybersecurity, coding and project management among other occupations. Courses are free, offered online, and open to transitioning service members and spouses at 18 military bases in the United States.

"About half of the future jobs in this country require some kind of credential or certification, and in many cases more so than a college degree, a credential is going to become the currency of the future labor market," Haynie said.

The U.S. Chamber's veterans' hiring initiative is known for hosting in-person hiring events across the country, but it has also built professional networks for military spouses. "We have over 55 networks around the globe, so spouses have a community, as soon as they move, of like-minded spouses seeking professional development opportunities," O'Brien said.

When military spouses relocate, they're typically looking at about four months of unemployment as a best-case scenario, she said. "So, if I know I'm moving from D.C. to Honolulu, I'm going to reach out to that network and get plugged in immediately."

The Chamber also runs a Military Spouse Fellowship Program, a six-week paid apprenticeship-like experience available at a few locations around the country that gives military spouses professional training, networking and hands-on experience in the civilian workforce. Participating companies gain access to a new talent pool.

The DOD's Spouse Education and Career Opportunities program provides comprehensive education and career guidance to military spouses worldwide and offers comprehensive resources and tools for career progression, Beauregard said. The program also offers scholarships toward education and the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, a marketplace connecting military spouses with nearly 400 partner employers who have committed to hire them.

The Society for Human Resource Management's HireVets portal, launched in 2018, connects SHRM members with a database of veteran and military spouse job seekers.

The HireVets tool includes a nationwide candidate database, a military skills translator and candidate-matching technology to link job seekers with positions that best match their skills.

"Military spouses are as committed and dedicated to the mission as their service-member counterparts," said Andrew Morton, director of veterans and certification affairs at SHRM. "That’s why it’s critical that these highly qualified and deserving candidates are part of the HireVets database. Organizations, across all industries, should take notice, not because it's a good deed, but rather because it’s good business."


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