Why Military Spouse Employment Programs Aren’t Working and Here’s How We Can Fix It

Military spouse employment is a hot button issue and not without reason. According to the 2013 Military Spouse Employment Survey conducted by the Military Officers Association of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF) more than 90% of respondents indicated that they “want” to work. The study goes on to list factors that might affect military spouse unemployment including relocation woes, employer perceptions of military spouses, inflexible work schedules and high childcare costs.

 

military spouse employment survey
Check out the full infographic for the Military Spouse Employment Survey by MOAA and IVMF here. You can read the full report here.

But what about all the programs claiming to support military spouse employment? Aren’t they making a dent? Shouldn’t we have this problem close to solved by now?

Is Supporting Military Spouse Employment Just a PR Campaign?

NextGen MilSpouse asked its readers the following question on Facebook:

“For those of you contemplating or actively engaged in a career, however loose we use that word, what are your biggest struggles in maintaining your career in relation to military life? For those of you who are opting out, was it a true choice or did you feel like you had no choice but to opt out due to military life?”

As we read through the comments we found ourselves part shaking our heads in frustration and nodding in agreement…

“…my soldier gets grief if he has to pick up a sick or injured child from school ‘don’t you have a wife for that stuff?’ FRG and other activities are planned last minute making it very difficult for spouses to get time off etc…I’m extremely fortunate to work for an employer who is extremely understanding about my military spouse! MY employer is the reason I can continue to work in spite of the military.”

“I love my husband and have been very supportive but truth be said I am bitter at times. Bitter for leaving great jobs and then being jobless.”

“Giving up a career wasn’t a choice for me & is the biggest source of strife in our life as a military family.”

“I chose to start my own business and work for myself rather than deal with having to job hunt and start over after each PCS.”

And then there was this…

“Although the military claims to support spouses’ careers, and probably does on a high level, on the day to day they don’t…”

$79 Million Dollars Can’t Solve the Military Spouse Employment Problem

We can’t say that the Pentagon isn’t ponying up the dollars to support military spouse employment programs. According to the Department of Defense budget we spent $79 million on military spouse employment programs in 2014. Despite countless resources and programs to support military spouse employment by official DoD channels like mySECO,  MSEP, MyCAA and MilitaryOneSource something still isn’t clicking in the military spouse employment conundrum.

What if the problem isn’t just about military spouses finding a job? What if it’s about military spouses feeling empowered to work at all?

It doesn’t matter how much money we continue to throw at the military spouse employment issue, if we don’t start talking about how to foster a climate that is compatible with a dual-income military family to make that $79 million dollar investment in military spouse employment initiatives and programs worthwhile for military families, and most importantly the Department of Defense.

You might argue, but we’re at war. It’s not the DoD or the military’s responsibility to do these things. Military spouse employment isn’t mission essential.

You know what, you’re right. We are war. The mission comes first. I can’t fight Uncle Sam.

At the same time, however, we’re facing drastic drawdowns that are putting our military families at risk, many of who are single-income families who risk seeing the one income they rely on go down to none.

Tell me, what makes America’s transitioning military families stronger? The prospect of facing one income going down to no income or two incomes going down to one?

When Forbes said that “two adults bringing home the bacon is the new norm” in America, they probably weren’t thinking about today’s military families, but as I read it, I sure was. In that same article, they cited 2013 survey conducted by LearnVest and Chase Bluerpint that found that “6 in 10 Americans…believe you need dual incomes these days to afford your dreams.” I assume that our military families probably think the same thing.

But what happens when a military family attempts the dual-income family model– is the Pentagon ready to talk about work policies that support dual-income military families at the installation level?

Dual-Income Military Families Need Support at the Installation Level

Championing military spouse employment as an idea is a great public relations campaign. It allows the Pentagon to push away its 1950s approach to family life and embrace its 21st century Soldiers, Airmen,  Sailors, Marines, and Coasties who are marrying career-minded, hard-charging, high-performers with their eyes on their own professional prizes.

Being a champion, however, doesn’t actually mean doing anything specific. It’s just being a cheerleader. You can tell the team to move the ball down the field, but you’re not actually changing the score.

What we’re missing from the conversation on military spouse employment and supporting dual-working military families is exactly that. Conversation. It’s time for senior leaders at the Pentagon to start a conversation from the top down to the installation level about positive ways we, as a military community, can support dual-working military families across the board, including military-to-military families AND military-to-working-military-spouse families.

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