Employment and Career Issues Confronting Military Spouses
Posted by YWM on May 11, 2012
The success of our nation’s all-volunteer military force depends to a large extent on the unwavering support of our nation’s military spouses. More than 2.2 million service members comprise our nation’s active duty, National Guard and Reserve forces. According to the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), more than 55% of military members are married — meaning there are more than 1.2 million military spouses who are often left behind during deployments to manage their households, families and careers. According to the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) nearly 1.15 million, or 95% of those military spouses are women, an overwhelming majority of whom want and/or need to work. Unfortunately, 26% of military spouses are unemployed. This is three times the unemployment rate of their civilian counterparts.
Surveys of military spouses indicate that satisfaction with employment and career development significantly affects their well-being. The military community is predominantly a family-oriented environment and family life issues play a strong role in a service member’s decisions to remain in the military. For more than a decade, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have challenged retention and reenlistment in the military. Reenlistment is such a concern, that the Department of Defense (DoD) increased their budget for reenlistment bonuses from $864 million in 2000 to $1.4 billion in 2008. While this financial compensation is can be a significant reason for reenlisting, a DoD and Treasury report found that “a spouse’s employment [also] plays a key role in the financial and personal well-being of military families, and their job satisfaction is an important component of the retention of service members. Without adequate support for military spouses and their career objectives, the military could have trouble retaining service members.” In fact, “when the spouse is supportive, reenlistment is more likely than if the spouse is not supportive” (Scarville, 1990). This brings us right back to spousal employment, the second ranked issue of concern for military families (Blue Star Families, 2010).
Blue Star Families, an organization committed to supporting, connecting and empowering military families and known for constantly capturing real-time feedback, surveyed military spouses and found that half of the respondents said that being a military spouse had a negative effect on their ability to pursue a career. This is not simply a perception. A 2010 RAND report cited nine studies, spanning 30 years, that conclude military wives work and earn less in the U.S. labor market than their civilian counterparts — despite being on average, better educated. The DMDC concludes, “the majority of military spouses believe that the military lifestyle — including frequent moves, deployments and long hours that keep service members from assisting with parenting, and living in areas with poor local labor market conditions — has negatively affected their employment opportunities.” For example, as a result of frequent moves, spouses working in professions requiring state licenses or certification bear a higher financial and administrative burden since credentials often do not transfer across states. In addition, more than 13% of those spouses whose careers have been impacted negatively by their military lifestyle have experienced some type of discrimination due to their status as a military spouse (Blue Star Families, 2010).
Military spouses are increasingly recognized for their stellar abilities to juggle work, school and children, household finances, military and civilian networks and expectations, frequent moves, emotional stressors of a spouse who may not be consistently present, and a host of other events which are part of their “normal” day. Military spouses are well educated: 84 percent have some college; 25 percent have a bachelor’s degree; and 10 percent have an advanced degree (MSEP, 2012). More than two-thirds have work experience (DMDC, 2008), and 38 percent have high levels of education for their current jobs (RAND, 2010). Furthermore, spouses volunteer three times more than civilians, and tend to take on a the more demanding leadership roles in their volunteer organizations (Blue Star Families, 2010). It is only fitting that these skills be viewed by potential employers as adaptable, resilient, persistent and dedicated. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case.
Over the past few years, Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) Foundation has championed women veterans and military spouses in their efforts to succeed in civilian careers. BPW Foundation’s work is based on nearly a decade of research on the challenges facing military women as they endeavor to find civilian employment. In 2005, BPW Foundation made a commitment to better understand the employment transition of women veterans. The research highlighted translation and portability of skills as major obstacles and underscored an overwhelming gap in career and employment support among the growing population of military women upon their return to civilian life. Armed with this learning, BPW Foundation initiated studies and engaged private and public sector partners to outline employment access strategies.
You can support military spouses by becoming a mentor though Business and Professional Women’s Foundation’s Joining Forces Mentoring Plus™. This free program provides training and resources for mentors so you can share your life and work experiences with a military spouse. This effort builds on BPW Foundation’s long legacy of working women helping women work.
This blog is excerpted from Joining Forces Mentoring Plus™, Military Spouses: Employment and Careers Issue Brief, May 2021