Highlights: Experts discuss military spouse (un)employment

A military family reunites at DFW airport in Dallas, Texas, October 22, 2008. Among those struggling in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression are members of the U.S. armed forces and their families. Picture taken October 22, 2008. To match feature FINANCIAL/MILITARY REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES) - GM1E4AS1CUD01

The United States continues to ask a great deal of its men and women in uniform — and their families. And as the saying goes, the military recruits the service member, but it retains the family.

As experts discussed at a Brookings event on October 21, only if military families are financially secure and otherwise stable can the all-volunteer armed forces remain strong. Although military compensation compares favorably with most jobs for comparable cohorts in the private sector, challenges still abound, they said. Not least among them is the fact that military spouses, because of frequent changes of postings and the additional demands of military life and deployments, often struggle to find and keep good jobs. Yet today’s economy can make it very difficult for single-income families to stay afloat.

Following an introduction by Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, moderator Holly Petraeus — former assistant director for service member affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — described her own experience as a military spouse with employment. She described the various barriers she faced through 37 years of active duty and 24 moves to find and retain gainful work, but added that volunteering helped her develop job skills that translated well into the business world. While many dimensions of the modern job market have changed and opened new avenues of employment (e.g. the possibility of teleworking), and while there is greater public support and awareness of military families than in the 1970s, there are still challenges. One is that although military incomes have kept pace with inflation, it is increasingly difficult for single-income families to thrive in the current economy because of the cost of big-ticket items.

Petraeus then turned to Marcus Beauregard, director of the State Liaison Office at the Department of Defense (DoD). He acknowledged that families typically make decisions as a unit, and that the DoD therefore sees taking care of the family as part and parcel of its overall strategy. He talked at length about the Pentagon’s work with the Department of Labor on licensure (or the transferability of professional certifications across state lines), specifically on implementation by state boards. He highlighted Spouse Education Career Opportunities (SECO), which he said is not as widely known of a resource as it should be. SECO provides consultations with career coaches. Beauregard also discussed the My Career Advancement Account, a $4,000 scholarship toward education, and highlighted the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP), through which over 400 corporations have linked military spouses with almost 140,000 jobs.

Mike Haynie, executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, noted that military families are less and less likely to recommend military service to their children. He cautioned: “That should tell us something — and it should scare us.” There is not enough research being done on the issues facing military families. “Not only is underemployment for spouses significantly higher than their non-military connected peers and in the workforce, it’s clear from the data and multiple studies that military spouses earn less, controlling for education and industry.” Haynie’s view is that “to get this right, we have to shift the mindset about military spouses and families more broadly to understand that they are always in transition.”

Elizabeth O’Brien, senior director of the Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Program at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, cautioned that military families still have a long way to go. Given that so many institutions and companies in 2009, 2010, and 2011 went to great lengths to increase hiring among veterans, why, she asked, has the country not moved the needle on military spouse unemployment? “If we can convince companies and organizations to be part of that solution, we can then create solutions for the rest of Americans that are facing the same challenges.”

Jen Davis, Deputy Director of Government Relations at the National Military Family Association, described her organization’s scholarship program, which can be used for traditional education, but also for a licensure or certification and even supervision hours. The National Military Family Association has given $5.7 million to 4,700 spouses since 2004. To raise the impact of such spending, Davis said she’d like to see an expansion of the Relicensure Reimbursement Program, a pilot program that the services just rolled out to ensure that military spouses can take advantage of it. Davis said she’d like to see interstate compacts expanded, and that military spouses should talk to state legislators where they’re stationed to bring this on officials’ radar. Davis also highlighted her work on a Work Opportunity Tax Credit to target military spouses.

During the Q&A session, one participant asked what innovations can be expected with respect to childcare to enhance military spouse employment. O’Brien answered that one solution was borne out of the Spouse Economic Empowerment Zone in the state of Washington, where Hiring Our Heroes partnered with Pac-Mountain to provide funding for military spouses to become certified childcare providers in the state. She noted that this is not something can be tackled by one organization, or even the Department of Defense, and much could come from partnering with organizations like YMCA and others.