Career: Let's Talk Duty Station Hellholes

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I tried to sugarcoat the title. Somehow How To Find A Job When You Are Stationed In A Remote Location doesn’t begin to tell the whole career story for military spouses, does it?

So “hellhole” it is. But seriously, after the initial pity party when you look around your new digs and fail to see a possible employer for miles around, what can a military spouse do?

As a certified coach through the International Coaching Federation who worked with military spouses in career transitions for more than a decade, I can honestly say that traditional career counseling techniques don’t always apply when you are stationed in a “hellhole.” I do know that if you hang in there, there is help. 

Know You Are Not Alone

There are more than 500 military installations scattered across the globe. Some are located overseas, where spouse job opportunities are limited by status of forces agreements.

Other installations are in less metropolitan areas with less opportunity for employment. The research says that on the whole, spouses who live in metropolitan areas have greater job satisfaction than those located in rural areas.

Other duty stations may have employment, but not the kind you are looking for. One of my clients is an attorney. She passed the bar, then her husband was transferred to another state.

Another client is a Realtor. She had just built up her real estate contacts, and then her husband was stationed in a tiny town with no need for a new Realtor.

Hellholes -- whether geographic or career specific -- happen to everyone in the military at some time. What happens next depends on you.

Can you buy a sense of humor?

Last week, my client admitted that laughing at the whole situation helps. To be honest, sometimes she even laughed at me.

This spouse hired me to explore entrepreneurial options because in such a limited environment she felt that was her only option. She wasn’t sure if she had the personality to self-motivate.

I told her to grab the career journal that I sent her and go to Starbucks and write down in full detail what she imagined her ideal lifestyle and business to be. I was excited to ask, “Regardless of pay, what do you want to study the rest of your life?”

“Krista, really?! Starbucks?” she responded. “Obviously, you have never been stationed here! If I lived in a cute little town with a Starbucks, I would be working and I wouldn’t be so stuck and isolated!”

I instantly got a clearer picture of what she meant when she said she was stationed in a hellhole.   

I began to imagine dusty roads and empathize.

I couldn’t even handle going to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for my husband’s stateside deployment and I had an established portable profession. I couldn’t imagine having to live in the desert.

But I know that if my clients are going to be happy, at some point they must pull themselves up by the bootstraps and create the lifestyle they want -- regardless of the sucky duty station.

Access Your Inner Donald Trump

Military life is what you make of it. For example, let’s say that Donald Trump was stationed in a remote town in Nevada. What would he do?

As a military spouse in a hellhole, you have to start to think like this. As tempting as it is, don’t fall into the trap of Excusitis. Let’s focus on what we can do versus what we can’t.

I have boutique-owner client who managed to access her inner Donald Trump. When her servicemember was transferred to Germany, she got creative and hired another military spouse to run her place. 

My client now manages her business remotely. Is the situation ideal? No. But both spouses are learning a lot.

Military life isn’t easy, and it’s hard to climb the career ladder in Fort Middle-of-no-where, but determination does work.

One of my senior spouse clients had some pointed insight. She said that sometimes you have to be determined, regardless of the cards you’ve got.

She told me, “If you were an executive at IBM and you are stationed on an island and the only business is Dairy Queen, then you can sit home and be pissed, or you can get a job managing Dairy Queen, learn every single thing you can while you are there, and take the knowledge with you!” I love this.

Here are some ideas that have worked for other spouses just like you. Try these:

Develop a New Career Skill

** Join a professional organization such as Toastmasters or consider starting a local chapter of a national organization you are affiliated with. Even if you have to drive an hour to get there once a month, it is worth it

** Try creating a meet up group to work on a skill such as blogging, writing or photography. If you live in a hellhole duty station, you can be sure to find other spouses who are also looking for opportunity.

** Take a degree course that will benefit you down the road. You could also consider or a non-degree class or an online class from “The Great Courses” that interests you or will benefit you when you finally move.

I had a client who used her time during a “bad assignment” to take that one undergrad class she was missing and transfer it back to where she had gone to school years earlier. 

Go back to school and get a degree

No one should go to school just to go. No one should take out loans unless they have done a cost/benefit analysis and know they will get a lucrative job in the field they are studying.

Going back to school can yield long-term benefits, especially for military spouses. Researchers have found that military wives tend to enjoy higher returns for their education and work experience than civilian wives. Education has been shown to minimize the impact of military lifestyle over time.

Look Outside Your Industry

If you can’t find a job on or Career OneStop in your field, look at a field that may have jobs where you can utilize transferable skills.

For example, if you have always worked in compensation and benefits at a large company, consider applying for a job in a small company as a human resource generalist to broaden your skill set.

If you were a counselor at a public school and can’t find a job, consider tutoring and running an after-school program that keeps you in the mix while you are looking.

Be creative. Check out your local library’s list of professional organizations in the area and make use of online networking websites so you can be in the know.

Seek Helpful Advisers

Is it time to up your networking skills, make some calls, reach out to that recruiter? Check out what resources are available to you, reach out to your base, and reach out to other military spouses and tell them what you are looking for so they can help you tap into the hidden job market of what isn’t advertised.

I had a client who worked in training and couldn’t find a job with a local company. She attended a local American Society of Training and Development meeting that was an hour from where she lived. Someone at the meeting hired her to be their assistant because they were overbooked with speeches and needed help writing presentations.

This spouse said she learned more than when she worked at any of her internal training jobs and is now for the first time ever considering joining the NSA and going out on her own as a professional speaker.

Adopt An Investment Mindset:

Even if taking a career break and going back to school during a Hellhole duty station feels like a step backward at the time, try and focus on your “down the road” success.

You may not be able to control where you are, but you can control how much you learn, who you reach out to, and how hard you work. And someday, when you do get to decide where to build your dream home, all these decisions will pay you dividends. So have some fun, and hang in!

-- Krista Wells, Ph.D. is The Military Spouse Coach. In addition to her work with clients, Krista speaks at Family Readiness Group events, conducts workshops on finding perfect portable professions, and gives presentations at military spouse conferences and events.

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