When it comes to military spouse employment, the Defense Department holds a wildly unacceptable double standard. On the one hand, they have an entire office of the Pentagon devoted to helping military spouses create and maintain careers. They tout spouse jobs as a major part of transition out of the military. The White House has even been a part of the major push, too.
But even as they sing the praises of hiring military spouses, they fail to practice what they preach. Now more than ever before in recent memory, the military family support machine is built on volunteers and a 1950s-era assumption that military spouses have all the free time in the world for such tasks. And while volunteer-reliance has always been true, budget cuts and subsequent staff downsizing have highlighted the issue. Even as the DoD claims they want spouses to have successful careers, they ask us to spend our time propping up family programs as volunteers.
You can’t do both.
As a case study, let’s focus specifically on the problem with the Army, the military’s largest service. The Army family support system relies on programs run under “Army Community Service,” the umbrella organization for everything from the family readiness groups (FRG) and FRG leader training, to Family Readiness Support Advisers at the unit level, to career and resume help for spouse job-seekers.
This year Army officials announced that they would be downsizing ACS staff by 23 percent over the next two years, largely through attrition. And while we can all agree that there are some people sitting in government offices not really doing anything, we can also assume that among that 23 percent will be roles that are going to be truly missed -- and holes that someone is going to want to fill with volunteers.
A great example of this problem comes from Fort Belvoir, Virginia where a manager emailed those who had registered with ACS as job seekers asking for them to volunteer for the front desk.
“Army Community Services has been experiencing a loss of personnel to support our operations. We are especially in need of a few volunteers who have strong customer service skills and some administrative skills who can serve at our front desk. We need individuals who can commit to a regular part time schedule.” she wrote. “If you are interested, please send me your resume and let me know your days and hours available. There will be an interview process with several ACS personnel so please understand that we are looking for the right fits for our needs.”
That sounds like a job, doesn’t it? But rather than hiring for it, they need a volunteer. And we wonder why military spouses have roughly three times the unemployment rate of their civilian counterparts.
The manager who wrote the email told me that the volunteer would not be asked to do “inherently governmental work.” Instead, she said, they’ll be assisting the front desk in an internship-like setting, gaining critical experience and a network for their job hunt.
But we know that this volunteer experience doesn’t necessarily equal employment. Veteran, volunteer-extraordinaire and former Military Spouse of the Year Jeremy Hilton highlighted the problem well in this Huffington Post article (which he, ironically, wrote as a volunteer). Despite working tirelessly (and effectively) on a variety of national campaigns and lobbying efforts, he can’t find a job that pays what he believes he is worth, or more than the $15 an hour that many spouse jobs seem to offer, he wrote.
“My belief is that corporate America and the government appreciates your service, but not enough to give you appropriate credit for it. And while many groups tout that volunteer experiences count towards your resume, I fear that experience doesn’t count for much or certainly less than you think it should,” he wrote.
The ACS cut is on top of the downsizing to the Family Readiness Support Adviser Program (FRSAs). In the program's 2009 heyday, FRSAs were placed at battalion level and helped the volunteer FRG leaders with time-consuming tasks like maintaining the roster (a job that every FRG leader knows to be thankless and soul-sucking) and making sure volunteers have the information to share with their units. But as budget cuts hit, those FRSA positions were slowly eliminated. A position that had been in every battalion was first moved to brigade-level only, and then downsized even further from there.
But the tasks associated with the FRSA job still must be done if units are to successfully communicate basic information like upcoming training schedules and homecoming dates with families. Some units have assigned soldiers to take over the jobs (a cruel punishment if you are, for example, a young and combat-hungry infantry officer now babysitting family members’ contact information and planning the pre-deployment ball). Others simply leave the position unfilled, waiting for an unemployed spouse or one willing to put her career to the side to step-in and take as a volunteer what has before been a full-time, paying job.
Statistics demonstrate the problem as well. When the DoD says it does want to hire military spouses, its actual habits seem to mirror what Hilton suspects. One recent survey found that 79 percent of military spouse respondents who had applied for a federal job using a federal spouse priority placement program hadn’t been hired. And a manager at a large Army base told me that because so many soldiers are leaving the service and then applying for federal jobs using their veteran preference, spouses may continue to find it impossible to land GS work using their lower-weighted “priority” status.
So what can be done to mend the problem?
Top military leaders need to admit that we cannot have both a robust family support network on base and a focus on family needs -- the kind the “Force of the Future” initiative demands -- while also relying on the spouses of troops to do the heavy lifting for free.
We cannot tell spouses we want them to have careers while also suggesting that we need them to volunteer full time to make the military machine work.
Pick one, and then own it. Or, better yet, know that the days of yore are gone, and it's time to pay qualified spouses for their time.