Earlier this month, President Barack Obama addressed veteran employment as a major issue now that the majority of troops have returned from Afghanistan. “If you want somebody who’s going to get the job done and done right, hire a veteran,” he said.
But instead of focusing solely on those who have served in uniform, President Obama included not only veterans but also those who supported them at home — their spouses. In his description of Joining Forces, a national campaign launched by First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, he included both groups in the current total of 700,000 people hired.
This is a step forward for a somewhat forgotten group. In 2013, The University of Syracuse’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families released a study on the “Military Spouse Employment Rate.” It found female spouses of active military face twice as high an unemployment rate as the rest of the country —32.2 percent jobless military spouses compared with 16.6 percent of the general population in 2012. Military spouses between 18 and 24 years old had the highest unemployment rates at 30 percent compared with 11 percent of civilian women between those ages.
For those who did have jobs, 90 percent of them were underemployed. Of the respondents, 33 percent said they filled positions that were beneath their level of education, 10 percent said experience and 47 percent said because of both.
With numbers like these, Joined Forces seems to have its work cut out. But it’s not alone in its efforts to get more military spouses into the right levels of the workforce. Jon Barry, director of Missouri-based military veteran employment initiative Show Me Heroes, said the organization has partnered with 4,000 businesses to get 7,000 military service members hired.
Barry said one of the biggest challenges military spouses face when looking for a job can be their transience. Being married to a service member means moving wherever the government needs you, which makes job histories appear spotty or inconsistent. Instead of having time to move up in an organization, these spouses are stuck on a horizontal track that confines them to one level of employment at multiple companies — or so it looks to a hiring manager when the spouse of a service member sends in a résumé, even if that’s not the case.
“A lot are professionals who come with transferable skills,” Barry said. “Hiring and training someone is expensive. To have that person then leave after a short time can mean a loss of investment in human capital that company may not be able to afford."
Show Me Heroes' on-the-job training incentives reimburse a business for 50% of the wages of a qualifying military spouse for up to 6 months. The program offsets the cost associated with training and on-boarding a new employee making the hiring of a military spouse — who may leave in the future — a more realistic investment.
"This is a win for the business and a win for the military community," Barry said.
But just because military spouses have to go through training to learn the details of a job doesn’t mean they come entirely ill-equipped. Beyond being more likely to hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree than the average workforces, as found in the IVMF study, being married to the military through a serving spouse is a skill-builder in itself.
“Number one is the ability to adapt to extremely stressful situations,” said Jack Chirrick, executive director of veteran resource group Operation Homefront’s California branch. “It’s right there in the description of a military spouse … Can you imagine going into a situation when you and your spouse are co-parenting, and then all of a sudden your spouse leaves?”
Home and vehicle maintenance, budgeting, bill paying and other household duties fall entirely on spouses’ shoulders when a service member goes on assignment, which creates the ability to adapt and take on extra responsibilities.
“Not everyone can handle being a military spouse,” Chirrick said. “It’s a testament to them in addition to what our service members are doing, and people need to recognize that it’s the service member and their family that make a difference through combine efforts. They do both serve.”