Is MilSpouse Employment a National Issue with a Local Solution?

two women passing a paper between them
(Michelle Gordon/DVIDS)

Pentagon officials could be hitting a wall on military spouse employment help thanks to a key challenge that requires policy changes they can't make, says a new study by consulting firm Deloitte. The issue? Location, location, location.

The availability and variety of employment options for military spouses vary greatly by location, with even bigger challenges for someone moving from one side of the country to another, said Rosemary Williams, a Deloitte specialist who helped author the report. Williams previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Policy during the Obama administration.

The report, released July 22, is based on military spouse employment and demographics data collected from nonprofits and the government.

The Pentagon has long focused on influencing military spouse employment options from a federal level. But the new study says that tactic might not be what's needed, at least not right now. Instead, it says, the focus should be local.

So why is the Department of Defense (DoD) skipping it? The reason, Williams said, is tied to the DoD's limited local influence.

"The Department of Defense doesn't look at spouse employment as a local issue -- because they can't," she said.

Williams said that since 70% of military families live off installations, the local economy and the state are key players in the employment conversations.

The Pentagon’s State Liaison office works to educate state legislatures on laws and languages that affect military families, such as military spouse professional licensure portability. While all states have laws in place that allow some kind of license transfer or reciprocity, they vary widely and are not always enforced.

But that education only goes so far. The rate of military spouse unemployment has been sitting at about 26% for the last 10 years, according to some measurements. And after all the energy and time and money that's been put into it, we haven't moved the needle, she said.

While continuing to push the states to take additional action on professional license rules, more work can still be done at the federal level, Williams said, starting by asking the Bureau of Labor Statistics to measure military spouse employment.

"Data doesn't lie," she said when asked why another study was needed on this topic. "And it motivates people in D.C. to make change. We want more hard data and less anecdotal data.

Another twist on spouse employment across the board has been COVID-19. In some ways it has made remote work more accepted and normal -- which can help military spouses down the road. But in other ways, it's made finding a job more difficult, she said.

"COVID-19 is not a strategic pause but the way we do business can be done differently, the way we employ spouses could be different," Williams said.

Military spouse employment continues to be directly tied to military retention among both Millennials and Generation Z, Williams said. Those two generations tend to marry at their education and achievement levels, meaning spouses have career goals similar to those of their service members and are less likely to be satisfied with starting over every few years than previous generations.

"Family readiness is military readiness, specifically military spouses satisfaction and retention go hand-in-hand," she said. "When officers separate [from the military] at their peak earning years, it's because their spouses are also at the peak of their career."

The bottom line, she said, is that as the makeup of the military changes, the approach to military spouse unemployment as a readiness issue needs to change. Williams said they hope this report and subsequent research will push that forward.

"How we support spouses and families is not just a moral imperative it's a national security issue and should be treated as such. I think those who read this and gather data will agree with that statement," she said.

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--Rebecca Alwine can be reached at rebecca.alwine@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebecca_alwine.

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