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What Employers Should Know About Hiring Military Spouses

Due to frequent moves around the country and globe, military spouses face very high rates of unemployment and underemployment. Even so, they are a source of untapped talent for employers.

But most organizations lack tailored recruitment and retention strategies for military spouses, according to new research. Nearly 3 in 4 organizations have not implemented any strategies to recruit and hire military spouses, and nearly 2 in 3 have not implemented any strategies to retain them. Less than half of the surveyed HR professionals agreed that their organization understands the unique challenges that military spouses face.  

Insight to Action: Leveraging the Potential of Military Spouse Talent is based on a survey of over 1,075 HR professionals conducted earlier this year by SHRM and the SHRM Foundation and sponsored by USAA.

“This research demonstrates the essential role HR can play in addressing the military spouse employment crisis,” said Wendi Safstrom, president of the SHRM Foundation. “It is clear there is a gap in understanding that is creating barriers. HR professionals are critical to change that reality, by increasing awareness and implementing targeted strategies, so military spouses can be recognized as the highly skilled and resilient talent pool they are.”

Most organizations (77 percent) expressed interest in military spouses as a talent pool—yet only 13 percent agreed their organization succeeds in hiring from this group. This disparity can be explained in part by the fact that only 16 percent of organizations have a program in place for hiring and retaining military spouses.

“Formal programs not only ensure that a company is prioritizing military spouse employment, but it also is an opportunity for organizations to create best practices, set goals, and ensure proper education and training for talent acquisition and leadership teams,” said Marcus Ohlenforst, talent strategy and programs lead at USAA. “There are incredible resources available through organizations like Hiring Our Heroes that can help companies take the first steps at formalizing their focus on military spouse employment.”

He added that military spouses are an underutilized resource in communities across the U.S.

“They are extremely flexible, resilient, and creative problem solvers thanks to the unique challenges of military life,” Ohlenforst said. “Employers have an incredible opportunity to build connections with local military families and find untapped talent for their workforce.”

But employment barriers loom large. “More spouses than I can count have told me that they were denied jobs or had offers rescinded when the employer learned that the person was a military spouse,” said Alice Riethman, SHRM-CP, an employment attorney and consultant at Kilborn Riethman Consulting in Spokane, Wash., and the spouse of a U.S. Air Force pilot.

“Employers think, ‘They’re just going to leave.’ … I hear this over and over again,” she said.

Kilborn listed additional obstacles to employment, including the lack of a local network, limited access to child care, gaps in employment, foreign relocations where sometimes working is legally prohibited, and licensing and certification issues across states.

Recruiting Challenges and Solutions

According to SHRM, the top challenges that HR professionals identified when recruiting military spouses include:

  • Not knowing that military spouses have applied because they typically don’t self-identify.
  • A lack of awareness about programs or partnerships that could help them better recruit or hire military spouses and where to post jobs to attract military spouses as applicants.
  • The inability to offer military spouses flexible or remote schedules.

Consider changing resume screening practices so as not to filter out this group of applicants.

“In HR, we are taught to review resumes looking for gaps in employment and frequent job moves as a sign of unreliability or an indication that someone may be trying to hide something,” Kilborn said. “The reality for many military spouses is that a gap in employment is often inevitable when the family relocates due to the active-duty member’s service.”

She encouraged employers to provide a box to check to allow an applicant to indicate that they are a military spouse: “This will allow the person doing the review to better contextualize gaps in employment, more frequent job changes, and/or inconsistent career progression.”

HR will have to proactively build connections with local community-based organizations that support military spouses and work with specialized job boards to find applicants from this group, Nelson said.

Kilborn recommended reaching out to the family support services office at a nearby military installation and posting open jobs with the Military Spouse Employment Partnership and Hiring Our Heroes, an initiative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.  

Many jobs can be adapted to fit the unique needs of military spouses.

“While not every organization will be able to offer military spouses flexible or remote schedules, it is important to examine how much flexibility can be offered in each open position and to separate out management preferences from actual job requirements,” Nelson said. “When possible, offer remote positions, advertise existing remote or flexible roles during recruitment efforts, and be open to modifying positions to allow for remote work arrangements.”

Retention Challenges and Solutions

A majority of HR professionals at organizations that have employed military spouses find it more challenging to retain them than other employees, primarily because of the frequent relocations inherent in military life.

But it’s important to recognize that military spouses are not more likely to leave their jobs compared to other employees in the same demographic, said Casey Sword, senior specialist for enterprise research solutions at SHRM and a lead on the research. Usually, a military spouse’s stay at a duty station is ranges from two to four years—longer than the median employment tenure for all similarly aged women in the U.S., which is between one and three years, she said.

“It’s still important for organizations to encourage military spouses to share information about potential life changes as soon as they arise,” Sword said. “This allows ample time to explore alternative solutions to potential employment disruptions and helps employers and military spouses plan to make transitions as smooth as possible.”

She added that if the job cannot be done remotely, employers can explore alternative roles or in-person positions at the new location.

Kilborn said that employers should consider granting time off and flexibility for military moves and the service member’s deployment, when the spouse is left alone or as a caregiver to children. “Frequent unplanned and last-minute changes for service members may mean the employee needs added flexibility when urgencies and emergencies arise, like when a child is sick,” she said.

Employers should understand and comply with Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) military leave provisions and consider offering additional support such as permanent change of station leave and deployment leave.

“Train managers on FMLA military leave provisions,” Kilborn said. “As we know, oftentimes, an uninformed manager can deny an employee’s request before it ever reaches HR. Organizations should ensure that managers understand leave protections afforded to military family members so that they are aware of protections and can ensure that military spouse employees receive the support and time they need.”

Another way to strengthen retention is by fostering inclusivity, Sword said. This can be done by establishing specialized programs such as military-spouse-specific employee resource groups, mentorship programs, and networking events for military spouses, she said.


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