Tackling soaring unemployment among military spouses

Mar 15, 2023

9 mins

Tackling soaring unemployment among military spouses
Rozena Crossman

Journalist and translator based in Paris, France.

Almost one-third of Americans married to active members of the military are unemployed. In other words, 32% of the spouses of airmen, soldiers, marines and sailors want to work but can’t find a job. These families often have trouble paying for the daily necessities of life, never mind buying a home or sending their children to college. So how did this dire situation come about, and what’s being done to stop it?

The US has many problems, but unemployment isn’t its biggest at the moment. In January, the national unemployment rate was 3.4% — a 54-year low. That means military spouses are unemployed at a rate roughly 10 times higher than the national average. Even during the Great Depression, the worst unemployment period the country’s ever seen, the rate peaked at 25.59% in May 1933. So it’s shocking to note that 32% of military spouses struggle to find work, even though many of them badly need the income.

This startling figure comes from The Hidden Financial Costs of Military Spouse Unemployment, a 2022 survey from Hiring Our Heroes (HOH), a project by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation that helps veterans, transitioning service members and military spouses to find jobs. Drawing on the answers of 4,118 military spouses, the report emphasizes the necessity of having two incomes if military families are to afford a decent retirement and have any kind of savings. But it also paints a picture of the widespread financial insecurity experienced by these families, who often have trouble buying everyday goods, purchasing a home or sending a child to college on just one salary.

This problem isn’t new. Finding — and keeping — employment has long been a challenge for the partners of military professionals. A 1988 article from the New York Times details the Air Force’s “two-for-one” policy where the wives of service members were encouraged to give up their professions in order to support their husband’s career. The 2022 HOH survey reports that women make up 90% of America’s one million military spouses and that their unemployment rate hovered around 22% throughout the 2010s. Then things got worse.

Always on the move

Before the pandemic, these spouses were already struggling with lives that involved repeatedly having to relocate if they wanted to keep the family together. Doctors and lawyers found their credentials didn’t transfer across state lines. Teachers kept losing their tenure, earning a starter’s salary at each new post despite having years of experience. In-person jobs were impossible to retain. Every move meant building a new local network from scratch.

Elizabeth O’Brien, executive director of HOH and the longtime spouse of an active duty member, has firsthand experience of this. “My salary was going backwards because I was taking whatever job was available to stay within my industry,” says O’Brien, who studied business and marketing. “It’s so very reflective of military spouses being underemployed. Then when we moved — New York, Hawaii, California, Kansas, Kentucky, Germany and then DC, seven locations in nine years — there’s very limited economic opportunity in some of those places.

At the same time, living far from loved ones meant less help with childcare, a longstanding challenge for many working women that’s intensified when one parent is deployed away from the family. Then there’s the drain on mental and emotional resources – and time – that come with caring for a partner who may be suffering from physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Recurring issues

None of these issues have disappeared. Instead, Covid dealt a blow to the progress being made through initiatives such as Hiring our Heroes and Blue Star Families, a nonprofit founded by military spouses. In 2016, its studies on military spouse unemployment showed rates were 48% to 52% in certain industries, according to Laura Torres, who is its associate director of workforce engagement and diverse talent sourcing. Those numbers declined significantly in the following years as she worked with IBM and other major corporations involved in veteran employment programs to adopt hiring initiatives for military spouses, according to Torres. The situation looked hopeful until the pandemic arrived. “Covid came like a tsunami and completely slashed a lot of military spouses back out of the workforce,” she says.

Within two years, the situation had changed dramatically. By January 2022, there were 1.1 million fewer women in the American workforce than in February 2020. Military spouses were affected badly. Childcare became even more difficult as schools closed and service members remained deployed. Blue Star Families’ 2020 Military Family Lifestyle survey found that homeschooling and supervising virtual education was the top reason for unemployment among military spouses who wanted or needed to work.

You would think the remote work boom would have helped these people once the job market began to normalize. Activist organizations for military spouses had been promoting remote work long before the pandemic, so the situation seemed hopeful. But, while the sudden popularity of remote work may have created more opportunities to work from home, it also created more competition for these roles. What’s more, many of these positions are now in jeopardy as an impending economic downturn in the sectors using remote workers threatens these jobs. “Last year around this time, we were doing really good. There were a lot of employment opportunities,” says Torres. The tech industry layoffs have had repercussions. “Since September, when tech companies started pretty much dismantling their entire white-collar work and mid-management roles [things changed as] those are the same roles that a lot of military spouses are seeking, ” she says. “So with all of these jobs becoming almost nonexistent, there goes a chance for us to apply for any jobs, because there are no jobs that meet our expertise or experiences unless we go underemployed.

Finding a job that travels

Torres and O’Brien point to another solution to the nomadic lifestyle problem: portable work. It refers to a job that allows you to continue to advance in your career even if you move, giving those who frequently relocate the chance to receive promotions or evolve within their company. This could be via remote work or with a company that has offices all over the country. This is especially important given the age range of those involved, says O’Brien. “The majority of our military is 18 to 24 years old […] Those are the years that you’re at your lowest pay.” Portable work could not only save young service members from the stress of supporting a family on a single low income, it would also allow their spouses to gain crucial skills, experience and a network during the formative years of their career.

Portable work could also provide relief to the older spouses who’ve racked up significant gaps in their resumés. The HOH survey found that 59% of active duty spouses reported experiencing gaps of three or more years without full-time work. Not only does portable work allow these job-seekers to keep a foothold in the workplace, but it can ensure consistent experience and progress within one field.

Resilience and grit

While HOH reports that 76% of military spouses have a bachelor’s degree, only 56% of active duty spouses work in their area of training. “When you take a look at the lifespan of my career, people start to think, ‘How does that even make sense?’ Higher education and coaching college basketball to non-profit to for-profit and back, ” says O’Brien. “I think it really speaks to what military spouses embody. It’s resilience and grit in a population that’s more educated than the American population at large.

Portable work also gives these spouses the opportunity to negotiate and teach their employers about the professional hardships inherent in the military lifestyle. “They’re not moving or relocating by choice,” says Torres. “[Only] in the sense that they’re choosing to be with their spouse, their families.”

Torres also points to the unique challenges of military spouses of color. The Blue Star Families’ Racial Equity and Inclusion report indicates the unemployment figure for non-white military spouses may be as high as 43%. Torres, who is Hispanic and the spouse of a retired military member, finds that many of the employment problems faced by racialized communities also show up in the military world. “What I considered to be normal were actually challenges to most work professionals out there,” she says. “I thought that if I’d get hired, it would be in hospitality or lower-paying jobs, like my parents did. But I guess I made it — if I was actually working as an admin in an office then it’s like, ‘Wow.’ So I didn’t see [unemployment] as a challenge. I was happy that I was working from time to time.” It wasn’t until Torres earned her bachelor’s degree and began to attend career fairs while living on a military base that she says she realized, “this wasn’t just a minority issue. This was a military spouse issue.”

It’s a socioeconomic issue

This isn’t just a military spouse issue either, it’s a socioeconomic issue too, given the huge loss of earnings experienced by scores of military families. Almost half the respondents in the HOH survey (49%) said they needed two incomes just to comfortably afford everyday goods. And while the military does provide benefits, they’re often insufficient. O’Brien recalls how military child care centers could be excellent, but the wait to get in was sometimes 17 to 18 months, an unviable delay considering some deployments last only nine months. O’Brien and her husband eventually opted for non-military childcare, which she still views as an immense privilege. “The military provides a great deal of support, but there are still a lot of things that add up,” says Torres. “Little pocket change items like ketchup – you don’t think about those things.”

Having to begin again in a new place repeatedly is expensive too. “Starting a new program for your kids in a new community — it adds up,” she says. “I know spouses who have relocated and, after they transfer one car with their dogs, and then they have to do medical stuff, check-ups, it adds up to $5,000 that the military doesn’t provide you. So you need a job to pay for that.”

Losing retirement contributions

With extra costs and halved incomes, it’s no wonder that 49% of respondents in the HOH survey aren’t confident they’ll be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement. While one-third of Americans rely on employer-sponsored retirement plans, those military spouses who do manage to find a job with such benefits rarely see them come to fruition, as an employee is usually required to stay with the company for a fixed amount of time before any matched funds can vest. HOH reports that 58% of active duty spouses on these plans have lost retirement contributions for this very reason. O’Brien recounts the story of one military spouse, a teacher forced to relocate every two to three years. With the constant loss of tenure, she spent her career working entry-level or substitute teaching jobs. “When she reached retirement and hit the actual age for social security to collect, her social security check was $110 a month,” says O’Brien.

The overall cost to the economy is hard to measure, but Blue Star Families estimates it could range from $710 million to $1.07 billion. So what’s being done to put money in these families’ pockets?

Congress debates military spouse acts

This is a hot topic in Congress, where a slew of related bills are being debated. The Military Spouse Hiring Act wants to include military spouses in the tax credit offered to employers when they hire workers from communities with higher barriers to employment. The Military Spouse Employment Act would help military spouses to land remote jobs with any federal agency. Meanwhile, the Military Spouse Licensing Relief Act would allow professional licenses to remain valid interstate for members of uniformed services and their spouses. And the Military Spouse Retirement Security Act seeks to give small businesses tax credit if they make military spouse employees immediately eligible for retirement plans.

In the meantime, concrete progress is being made. Last January, the US Department of Defense began a new program called the Military Spouse Career Accelerator Pilot (MSCAP). Run in partnership with HOH, the program allows military spouses to apply for a 12-week paid fellowship program with a host company that matches their education, location, experience and other factors. The fellowship is paid by the Department of Defense, and could lead to a job offer within the host company, although this isn’t guaranteed.

Both O’Brien and Torres consider the pilot a major advancement. “I think this is going to be a game changer, quite frankly, for how the country embraces military spouses,” says O’Brien. She believes the pilot will create a network of spouses who can lean on each other through the fellowship, and for the rest of their careers, and help fill lengthy resumé gaps. “We’ve seen over and over again, certainly on the civilian side, when we can create actual pathways around reskilling and upskilling, it increases the likelihood of success,” she says. Military Times reports that 800 spouses have started the application process, and HOH currently counts 34 fellows and two direct hires.

Spreading awareness

Perhaps the biggest solution is spreading awareness, as policies and pilot programs are driven only by people who care enough to make them happen. This means making sure military spouses are aware of the programs and resources available to them, and educating companies on the ins and outs of working with military spouses, who Torres and O’Brien say make great employees due to the versatility and resilience required in military life.

It also involves increased reporting on the situation. “Regular data gathering and reports by the US Departments of Labor, Defense, Veterans Affairs, and others were considered critical to helping bring down veteran unemployment,” says a 2020 Deloitte report, which notes that data on military spouses is not efficiently gathered and “can vary widely in estimates as a result.” It says, “The fact that military spouse unemployment is three times more than even the peak of veteran unemployment only further underscores the need for solid data gathering to shine light on this important issue.” The hope is that in future studies HOH’s estimate of the unemployment rate of these spouses will be lower. But right now it can be seen as a siren call alerting everyone that this situation is serious and demands attention.

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