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17 Apr 2023

You're Valued, Too: Overcoming the Challenges of Military Spousal Employment

One of the ongoing obstacles that military spouses face is employment — or the lack thereof. According to the Office of People Analytics’ (OPA) Active Duty Spouse Survey, 21% of active-duty spouses were unemployed in 2021, which is almost 6 times higher than the U.S. national average (3.4%; U.S. Department of Labor, 2023). Many military-related stressors (e.g., frequent relocations, spousal deployments) can contribute to high unemployment rates and underemployment (i.e., overqualified or working less than desired) for military spouses. Research shows that women who are married to an active-duty Service member and either do not have a college degree or have experienced relocation in the past year are more likely to be unemployed (Lara-Cinisomo et al., 2020).

This piece will tackle biases and barriers associated with military spousal employment, discuss how employment can boost personal well-being, describe the skills and assets that spouses can bring to the workplace, and emphasize just how valuable military spouses can be as employees.

Biases and Barriers to Military Spousal Employment

There is a running list of obstacles preventing adequate employment for military spouses. For example, Godier-McBard and colleagues (2020) found that many civilian employers in the U.K. consider the military an inflexible organization and believe that hiring a military spouse may create challenges for their organization. Frequent relocations are an additional barrier that could disrupt the natural progression of a spouse’s career, especially if a job is not easily transferable (Lim & Schulker, 2010). In addition, a 2006 study found that a majority of military wives in the labor force tended to be underemployed (49%), and only 11% were adequately employed (Lim & Schulker, 2010). Of those 49%, over one-third were underemployed due to an educational mismatch (i.e., overqualification) (Lim & Schulker, 2010).

These unfair barriers may be explained by the lack of standardization across states, especially regarding licensure. To give just one example, 35% of military spouses work in a field requiring licensure (e.g., nursing, dental hygiene; U.S. Department of the Treasury and U.S. Department of Defense, 2012). Specifically related to the nursing field, researchers found even after receiving access to information on topics such as state-specific licensing requirements and license maintenance, the lack of unified information resulted in confusion and frustration (Brannock & Bradford, 2021).

License portability is another barrier for military spouses regarding continued employment. Because many practicing licenses (e.g., medical, mental health, attorney/lawyer, education) are issued only for the state in which one resides, military spouses are at a disadvantage due to frequent military-related relocations. Transferring a license to a new state or country takes time and effort: requirements may include several months’ time, multiple forms of documentation, and application fees, which can add up quickly if you move often (Tidwell, 2020).

However, Congress has taken steps to address this issue by introducing the Comforting Our Military Families through On-base or Remote Treatment Act (COMFORT Act). If passed, the COMFORT Act will allow for the coordination of programs within the Department of Defense such that those who maintain a non-medical license (e.g., counselors, psychologists, mental health professionals) can provide service anywhere in the U.S. (Goodale, 2021). The Act would increase employment opportunities for spouses while simultaneously meeting the need for more military mental health service providers. While it only applies to those who maintain a non-medical license, the COMFORT Act could be an excellent reference point to increase the portability of other types of licensure for military spouses.

Benefits of Employment

The importance of employment opportunities for military spouses cannot be understated. Employment seems to buffer military spouses against some military-related stressors, like deployment or relocation, and provide a valuable sense of self and contribution (Huffman et al., 2021). According to Kremer and colleagues (2021), employed individuals can experience:

  • Greater life satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment
  • Daily structure
  • Frequent and consistent social interactions that can help build a sense of community
  • The emotional satisfaction that comes with meaningful contributions to society

Skills Military Spouses Bring to the Workforce

Julie Anne, a now-retired military spouse, explained that she gained the “ability to adapt to almost any situation and find normalcy in chaotic/unfamiliar situations or places,” during her time as a military spouse (White, 2021). Military spouses are adaptable, finding ways to thrive in a variety of occupational settings (Bradbard et al., 2016). Military spouses have a plethora of skills that can be useful in any position, such as being team oriented, having the ability to find normalcy amidst the chaos, and successfully being able to engage across cultures. Most military spouses experience separation from friends and family, frequent relocations, and spousal deployments – but common experiences like these teach them to adapt quickly to whatever gets thrown their way.

Military spouses are also team-oriented, a trait that largely matches the way military infrastructure runs: through camaraderie and mutual support. The nature of military life, with its frequent relocations, means that spouses and their families are exposed to a variety of different cultures. They have the potential to be among some of the most socially aware people you will ever meet (Bradbard et al., 2016), and their experiences in cross-cultural engagement are an asset in the workplace.

Employment Resources for Military Spouses

Although the biases of and barriers to military spousal employment are frequently recognized, leaders and policy makers are actively working to bridge the gap. Below are a few resources to help alleviate them:

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