Push to Ease Licensing for Military Spouses Remains Patchwork by State

The nursing field has gotten ever tighter, meaning higher-level degrees are helpful in getting jobs.
The nursing field has gotten ever tighter, meaning higher-level degrees are helpful in getting jobs.

Despite movement in all 50 states to ease professional licensing regulations for military spouses, rules remain inconsistent and, in most cases, difficult to navigate, military family experts say.

"They're not all created equal, and they don't cover every single profession," said Katie Savant a government relations strategist for the National Military Family Association.

"And just because the law is on the books doesn't mean that the regulatory agency that is responsible for the law is aware of it," she said. "We receive calls and emails from spouses all the time that say 'I know a law was passed but I don't know how to access it.'"

A rule recently approved by the New York state legislature speeds the professional licensing process for military spouses while lowering state fees, capping a major lobbying effort to ease career requirements in all 50 states by Defense Department leaders, military family advocates and the White House.

A series of speeches, videos and articles released by the White House over the July 4 holiday weekend celebrated the accomplishment, though New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign the legislation into law.

In the past, all military spouses in careers that require a professional license, such as teaching or nursing, needed to meet benchmarks for their state-specific license before going back to work after a military move to a new state.

But the licensing process can be lengthy due to bureaucratic requirements, and expensive thanks to fees and continuing education rules. That forces spouses to put their careers on hold, and many have complained that by the time they were able to go back to work it was time to move again and start the process over.

After Cuomo signs the legislation, every state will offer some level of flexibility for those professional licenses, depending on location and the profession in question. New York is the only state to not have such a set of laws allowing military spouses professional licensing flexibility.

Among the ongoing challenges for military spouses with professional licenses is understanding how to take advantage of each state's slightly different set of licensing rules.

For example, while Alaska allows a temporary, 180-day "courtesy license" to spouses certified in other states, the rule does not apply to teachers or lawyers. Spouses stationed in Colorado are covered under a complicated set of laws that allow for 90-day transitional licensing for teachers, and a one-year license waiver for spouses certified elsewhere for some other professions, but not engineers, surveyors, architects, real estate agents and attorneys, among others.

"Great work has been done," Savant said. "We're thrilled that there happens to be something for spouses, now we just want spouses to be able to access it and use it -- and since it doesn't look the same way in all 50 states, that can be difficult."

The Defense Department's State Liaison and Educational Opportunity office started asking for state licensure changes in 2008, with 11 states taking action. First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, began lobbying state governors to ask their legislatures to change the rules in late 2011 in conjunction with aDefense Department report on the issue. By late 2012, over 20 states had enacted new rules, while some remained hold-outs.

According to that report, military spouses are 10 times more likely to have moved across state lines in the last year, creating "disproportionately high financial and administrative burdens" for getting a license, it says. Additionally, one in three employed military spouses work in a profession requiring a professional license, including the top three jobs held by military spouses -- teaching, child care services, and nursing.

"It didn't make any sense. So we changed it," said President Barack Obama July 2 in his weekly radio address. "We can finally say to so many of our military families – when you move, you'll no longer be forced to put the career you love on hold just because you and your families have chosen to serve this country."

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @amybushatz.

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