Imagine wanting to relaunch or continue your career but your spouse’s work requires moving every two to three years, often to remote or rural places without many opportunities. Imagine that your spouse must leave the country for several months at a time -- for work that makes you sometimes worry about their safety and wellbeing -- while you act as sole parent or caregiver without any family nearby.
What you’ve just imagined is real life for military spouses, who often face a host of unique challenges to relaunching or continuing their careers while married to military servicemen/women.
As a career coach, I’m familiar with the hurdles that make reentry into the paid work world challenging for relaunchers across demographics and industries. Recently, however, I had eye-opening conversations with April Keating, iRelaunch’s Manager of Military and Community Outreach and the spouse of an Army National Guard Active Duty Service Member, and a few of her military spouse friends. These conversations taught me that relaunching one’s career as a military spouse requires an inspirational level of grit and determination.
The Key Challenges
Relocation and Underemployment
Moving every two to three years is a fact of life for many military families, and relocations may continue throughout a long military career. As April put it, “about the time when you get established, you have to move. With each move, you lose seniority and a sense of forward momentum.” Given that many military bases and installations are in non-urban or less economically developed areas like Fort Drum, New York or Fort Polk, Louisiana, opportunities to work in the spouse-relauncher’s chosen profession may be extremely limited or nonexistent. The option of commuting a long way for a job in a nearby city may not be attractive or realistic – especially with a deployed spouse and children to care for.
Overqualification and underemployment are realistic challenges for military spouses with advanced degrees. The GI Bill’s tuition-assistance benefits make obtaining advanced degrees, including Masters and PhDs, attractive for military spouses. But they’re often unable to use them when relocated to remote or rural areas. Licensing is another challenge: military spouses with professional licensing from one state may be unable to work or practice in another one that doesn’t recognize the license. Jessica, an Army veteran and spouse of an active duty Army Soldier, works with the Army Reserve as a suicide prevention program manager; she was licensed as a Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in New Mexico, moved three times as a military spouse, and now awaits licensure in Georgia where she is based with her family at Fort Benning.
Employers can often identify a military spouse by his or her resume when they see the address or sporadic employment history and may be concerned about investing in an employee who won’t last more than two or three years. Becci, a military spouse of an Army National Guard service member, said the difficulties of trying to advance her career and build a network outside of their military installation were sometimes especially hard because of ‘geographical differences’ and a sense of ‘outsiderness’ that made her stand out as a ‘non- local.'
Military spouses must often bear a significant share of parenting
responsibilities that make focusing on or relaunching their careers very
difficult. Cory, a 25-year Navy spouse, had an 11-year career break
during relocations to Florida, Virginia, Korea, Maryland, and Japan with
her husband, a Captain, and three children.
She told me that working seemed impossible ‘when you’re basically a de facto single parent with a spouse who is constantly being deployed or getting ready to be deployed.’ Focusing on ‘tending to the kids as they moved in and out of new schools’ also requires reserves of energy and focus that might otherwise be invested in a career relaunch.
Skills and Confidence
Rusty skills and low confidence are universal challenges for relaunchers, but military lifestyle and relocation patterns can sometimes exacerbate and reinforce them. When a military spouse repeatedly applies for jobs that she’s well qualified for but doesn’t get a single interview, her confidence may take a blow and it’s hard to recover. Meanwhile her skills may get progressively rusty, feeding into the confidence crisis.
The military spouses with whom I spoke shared invaluable tips on how they’ve managed to relaunch or advance their careers, some of which are summarized below:
- Be resourceful and proactive. If you’re going to be relocated, research the new area, satellite locations and resources. Think about how you might use your skills there. Consider an entrepreneurial venture or remote/virtual opportunities.
- Build a Community. The military world has a built-in community that can help you professionally and personally. Attend events and briefings. Be open to connecting with other career-minded and entrepreneurial spouses, as well as the business community outside the gate.
- Get to Know Your Resources. Use the career resources and job fairs for military spouses and watch for new ones that are constantly popping up. (See the list below.)
- Volunteer as a Way to Build or Hone Skills. Volunteering is often promoted as a way to enhance military life. Cory leveraged her years of volunteering on PTAs, spouse clubs and Sunday schools into an impressive portfolio that led to a US Embassy job offer.
- Promote Yourself as a Military Spouse. The lifestyle of a military spouse requires adaptability, resilience and loyalty. These are attractive traits in an employee so remind employers of this as part of your pitch. (As Becci stated, employers get ‘a lot of bang for their buck’ with military spouses.)
The Good News
Efforts to support military spouses’ career development are ongoing. Earlier this year, the Military Spouse Employment Act was introduced into Congress. This bill, sponsored by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) could expand hiring and career opportunities and provide for better transitions and employment resources for military spouses. iRelaunch Chair and Co-founder Carol Fishman Cohen was the recipient of the 2018 National Military Spouse Network’s Impact Award for her work helping to ease the transition of military spouses back to work. Hopefully, developments and efforts like these will pave the way to more career opportunities for military spouses. Meanwhile, military spouses like Jessica forge forward with inspiring determination. Describing her career relaunch, she said: “Every time I got knocked down, I would pick myself up and embrace the opportunities that came to me.”
Hiring Our Heroes
Blue Star Families
Sen. Tim Kaine legislation for military spouses
Military One Source / Military Spouse Employment Partnership
National Military Spouse Network
Department of Defense Spouse Education & Career Opportunities (MySECO)
Military One Source: Education & Employment
National Military Family Association: Spouses & Scholarships
Military Spouse License Transfer Options
MOAA (Military Officers Association of America) Career and Networking Events
USO Spouse Career Resources and Networking Events
V-Wise, Syracuse University