Empowering Military Spouses in the Workforce
Why do military spouses struggle to find employment?
By Tonie Powell
Hard work, dedication, love, and resilience weave together an extraordinary tapestry that is the military spouse. We are strong, independent women and men fiercely supportive of each other. We care wholeheartedly about all associated with the military and work tirelessly to support those who support us through serving our country.
Military Spouse Appreciation Month recognizes the spouse’s contributions to the military and the community. Those in the military took an oath to serve our country and receive medals, salutes, and commendations for their commitment. The sacrifices of the families, while not as evident, should also be applauded and recognized for their commitment to the service of our country through their support of the service member. Often these sacrifices go unnoticed and can create challenges, such as maintaining a job or career.
The Struggle of Finding Employment as a Military Spouse
On many military installations, spouses volunteer thousands of hours for the cause of the community and the military services. One can find a spouse volunteering at thrift stores, schools, Community Action Centers, Military Spouse Clubs, and the American Red Cross, to name a few. The spouse’s work is visible and needed. When the service member knows that the family is stable and receiving the required support within the community, they can focus on serving their mission without hesitation.
Along with the usual marital stresses, most non-military spouses are near support systems of family, lifelong friends, and resources known to them. We learn to make friends quickly, and those people become our family. The resentment and loneliness this lifestyle brings can be hard to understand. The sacrifice, commitment, and the stress of many domestic roles can be lonely and isolating at times. We can sometimes lose our identity – known only as someone’s spouse or someone’s parent. Many opportunities present themselves, such as worldwide travel, educational benefits, and excellent schools, but with these opportunities there can be just as many, if not more, sacrifices.
So much of our military lifestyle is beyond our control. Affordable childcare options are a major concern for military spouses. It is a primary family expense and the main reason many spouses choose not to work outside the home. At one point in my career, I worked 40 hours a week and cleared less than $600 monthly after childcare expenses, transportation, lunch, hair, nails, etc. I was exhausted and felt enormous guilt for allowing my children to be cared for by strangers while I earned a mere pittance.
Military spouses sometimes “Suffer in Silence,” fearing that speaking up may impact our service member’s career.
Qualities of a Military Spouse
We cover family milestones, holidays, and events alone, often finding ways to make up for the missing service member. In many cases, giving birth is a prime example. Thanks to my husband’s battalion chaplain (and his wife who made him do it), Gary was able to sneak away for a couple of hours (in full camouflage paint and an odor to match!) from field exercises to visit our newborn son and me in the neonatal intensive care unit in Fayetteville, NC.
Charlene Austin, the wife of Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin, has always been a working military spouse. She gave me this advice years ago when I became despondent during my job search. “This [military] experience is guaranteed to be like no other. Remain open to options and alternatives. Grow to be happy with yourself and work to realize your needs and goals.” That is good advice, but so much easier said than done.
Military spouses often sacrifice a stable career with their active-duty partner. The constant moving makes it hard to have career progression since you are not in any position long enough to have forward momentum. For example, my dear friend, Ivy, has multiple graduate degrees. Yet, she decided not to work for nearly twenty years because it was difficult to secure positions with growth and one that would work with her schedule of raising children and supporting her military service member.
Military spouses are adaptable, flexible, punctual finance managers, organizational managers, schedule managers, and residential physician assistants. They serve as Girl Scout leaders, Boy Scout leaders, piano teachers, sports coaches, and tutors. We are located in an area for 12-36 months. Within the first two weeks of arrival, the spouse has unpacked and arranged the house, registered students in new schools (who is my emergency contact when I don’t know anyone?!), obtained new doctors and a dentist, scheduled sporting activities and other extra-curriculum activities, and planned the summer vacation with fun activities.
Why Companies Should Hire Military Spouses
Securing positions and establishing a career have changed within the last 10 years for military spouses; however, it can sometimes still be difficult for a spouse to secure a position if they are not a teacher or working within the medical field. Many employers hesitate to hire a military spouse because they focused on the spouse leaving and not the skills the person was contributing to the overall mission.
An organization would benefit from having a military spouse who can work independently and collaboratively to complete tasks without supervision. A military spouse has likely managed a household and children and settled conflicts—from submitting damage claims to advocating for the best classes for their child. Military spouses are often highly educated and experienced; therefore, they meet the requirements for many positions. They should not be discounted simply because they may be at a temporary station. There are a lot of remote work options these days that may result in continuity beyond service location.
Carolyn Shelton, the spouse of General Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared an interesting story concerning her job search in the Washington, DC, area. She was submitting applications but had very little previous employment. She added her volunteer experience as a military spouse instead. A hiring manager reviewed her application and said, “Anyone who would volunteer this much at no pay has to be reliable. You’re hired!” Never discount the strength of your volunteer experience. You gain marketable skills needed in the business community.
When I met Carolyn, she had moved 24 times in 29 years. She humorously described her first experience as a military spouse (although I am sure humorously was not how she would have described it then). They arrived at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where her husband was to attend Ranger School. He told her, “I’m going to sign in with the unit, then I’ll be back.” He didn’t make it back for two days! This happens more often than we care to admit.
It is past time that companies provide childcare assistance or subsidies. A flexible spending account should be one of many benefits companies offer employees. I hope the future holds affordable options for all companies that will foster a healthier work-life balance.
Companies like Magellan Federal have already taken giant steps in supporting military spouses in the workplace. Our Talent Acquisition team is superb at keeping the company recognized as a Military Friendly Top 10 Spouse Employer. Our President, Anna Sever, is the spouse of an active-duty military service member. I do not doubt that under her leadership, we will continue to build on the foundation the company was founded on – care for surviving spouses of the fallen. I applaud Magellan Federal for the emphasis placed on mental health and access to resources.
I encourage other corporations to provide more opportunities for military spouses. Hire them because they get the job done and allow them to manage at the highest positions!
Tonie Powell, has been with Magellan Federal for nearly eight years. She serves as the Operations Office Manager and Executive Assistant to the President, Chief Growth Officer, and Vice President of the Human Readiness Division. She is the wife of a retired Army veteran and the mother of two extraordinary adult children. She enjoys the theatre and spending time with her family. Her life’s philosophy is simply, “Be Authentic.”