After years of using the Defense Department's military spouse employment program primarily as a troop retention tool, the Pentagon is now using it as an aid to help troops and their families transition out of the military.
"We really believe that if the spouse has an opportunity for career advancement and job opportunities, they will be the glue to support the transition of our servicemembers back into the civilian community," said Barbara Thompson, a DoD military family official.
That message indicates a change from previous reasoning behind the Defense Department's support of spouse employment, which focused on keeping mid-career troops in the military.
The unemployment rate among military spouses is about 26 percent, according to the DoD. About 38 percent of military spouses have an undergraduate degree, according to a 2013 survey by Blue Star Families, a military family support group.
"A spouse's employment plays a key role in the financial and personal well-being of military families, and their job satisfaction is an important component of the retention of service members," the joint report stated. "Without adequate support for military spouses and their career objectives, the military could have trouble retaining service members."
The military plans to reduce its active-duty troop number by 40,000 this year, putting a transition out of the military at the forefront of the minds of many military families.
Defense Department spouse and family officials are looking to the spouse career support they already offer to help cushion the blow when servicemembers get out and the military paychecks stop coming on the first and fifteenth of every month. Spouse career support services supplement the financial education and non-medical counseling support also already provided, military officials said.
Transition "is a very specific point of concentration for us at this point. We know that transitioning spouses, if we're able to get them successfully employed in a secure career, that they really do contribute to the success of that entire military family as they transition," said Meg O'Grady, who oversees portions of the DoD's career help programs.
O'Grady highlighted the need for spouse support at the launch of a new Defense Department virtual spouse career support program called My Individual Career Plan (MyICP).
The Pentagon sponsors a range of programs aimed at helping military spouses find jobs. The programs include MyICP, a virtual job board known as the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) and a scholarship program for lower enlisted and junior officers called My Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA).
In 2012, the DoD spent $76 million on those programs, with nearly three quarters of that funding going to the MyCAA scholarships. The budget for fiscal 2014 is slightly higher at $79 million. A proposed budget for 2015 is expected to be released later this month.
Some military spouse advocates said using spouse education and career support as a transition tool is a good start in helping military families get ready for the civilian world. But they said it's also important to highlight the program long before transition even comes on the radar.
"The most effective way to assist spouses during transition is to get them engaged long before transition starts," said Amanda Crowe, executive director of In Gear Career, a nonprofit that helps military spouses navigate career issues. "An engaged, satisfactorily employed military spouse is one of the best ways to ensure any military family has a smooth transition from military to civilian life."
Officials with Blue Star Families said when it comes to career assistance, spouses need to help the DoD help them. That is particularly true for spouses who are seeking careers in fields that require higher education, such as law or medicine.
"This has to be a partnership where military spouses take a lead in identifying steps that will help to improve their odds at success in a given occupation and then articulate steps that DoD can take to support these industries," said Cristin Shiffer, program manager for Blue Star Careers.