Army Mulls Longer Assignments to Encourage Employers to Hire Spouses

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cody Andrews, and his wife Paula, talk with Eva Tukarski, Head of the European Recruiting Office of a military placement firm, during the Employment and Career Expo, at SHAPE, Belgium, June 17, 2016. (U.S./Visual Information Specialist Pierre-Etienne Courtejoie)
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cody Andrews, and his wife Paula, talk with Eva Tukarski, Head of the European Recruiting Office of a military placement firm, during the Employment and Career Expo, at SHAPE, Belgium, June 17, 2016. (U.S./Visual Information Specialist Pierre-Etienne Courtejoie)

Top U.S. Army leaders assured lawmakers Tuesday that the service is taking steps to help spouses gain employment, to include extending some soldier assignments to more than three years.

Lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee wanted to know what the service is doing about the challenges many Army spouses face while seeking employment.

Employers are often reluctant to hire spouses because frequent assignment changes mean military families cannot stay in one place for long. Some spouses avoid mentioning that they are married to a service member in an attempt to get employers to consider them for jobs, lawmakers said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, asked Army Secretary Mark Esper and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley what the service is doing "to assist military spouses with professional development seeking employment."

Esper said the issue is "top priority for me, something I discuss with spouses at nearly every post I visit."

"This issue comes up over and over again, and I will tell you personally, when I was on active duty, my wife was discriminated against for work because they knew I was rotating," he said.

Currently, it takes an average of 140 days for the Army to hire spouses, or civilians, for on-base jobs, "which is unacceptable. So I am taking a number of initiatives at my level to reduce that," Esper said.

A large part of the problem is the vetting process the Office of Personnel Management oversees for civilian employment on base, he added.

"The OPM process is clunky and inefficient ... if we could either reform that or move it to [the Defense Department] or let the Army hire direct, it would really give us a greater advantage of reducing that 140-day average down to about 30 days," Esper said. "What happens is spouses become frustrated, and they give up searching for a job."

President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order on May 9 ordering federal agencies to more aggressively utilize a personnel rule that speeds the hiring of military spouses to certain positions. That personnel rule was originally issued by President George W. Bush in late 2008.

Another hurdle facing spouses looking for employment is the lack of "long-term stabilization of assignments," Milley said. "That is probably the biggest impediment to stabilizing the spousal employment in a local area -- the constant churn of two- [to] three-year assignments works against spouse employment."

The Army is examining a plan for longer assignments, but the change would not be for everyone, he said.

For enlisted soldiers, "we think we can probably achieve longer than three-year assignments," Milley said. "For the officers, it is significantly more of a challenge because of career development opportunities that we want for our officers."

Milley gave no timeline of when longer assignments might become a reality.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, pointed out that there are not enough jobs on base to solve the spouse employment problem.

"It's not just a DoD issue," she said. "We need the communities and the private sector to really step up and meet their part of this obligation. I am looking at ways we can engage the private sector to help them become more responsible citizens."

Murray said that one spouse told her, "She sent a number of resumes and didn't hear anything back. She sent them [again] to the same people and didn't put her military spouse affiliation on her resume and heard back.

"I think we really need to look at the private sector too," she said. "The opportunities for military spouses are often rare ... and I don't think we should ever be in a position where military spouses can't find work."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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