Military spouse employment – The chatter vs the challenge

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Twenty years ago, all the people working to help military families could fit around a large conference table with some room to spare. Today, we are filling ballrooms and raising millions of dollars in government and private funds. In the last seven years, the Department of Defense alone has spent between $54 and $186 million per year since 2009 for well-run and highly-regarded programs such as Spouse Education and Career Opportunities that help connect military spouses to new skills and job opportunities. Despite all the attention and support, the unemployment rate for military spouses stubbornly hovers around a staggering 26 percent, more than seven times the national average. Clearly, this is a problem that requires new ideas.

Why spousal employment matters

Over the last decade, there has been a growing awareness of the impact military family experience can have on national security. Defense Secretary Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, have both made improving the experience of military families a priority, even going so far as to name it the fourth pillar in the National Defense Strategy. But why is family experience such a big deal, on par with fighter jets and alliances?

The simple fact is that mission readiness means family readiness. There is a saying that you recruit the individual but retain the family. Recent survey data bears out this traditional wisdom, with service members being twice as likely to stay in the military for every percentage point increase in their spouse’s support for staying. Plus, increasingly complex missions in areas such as space and cyber demand recruits with ever more skills and education. Americans with advanced degrees are 30 percent more likely to be married than high school graduates, making this issue more urgent than ever.

Therefore, if we want to recruit and retain the best talent, we need to support the family. Mirroring society as a whole, the military family increasingly features two working spouses. But unlike other Americans, military families typically move every 2-4 years, creating a huge hurdle for military spouses to find a functioning and satisfying career. With a fulfilling career being a key factor in deciding whether to stay in or leave the military, supporting spousal employment is central to keeping the military’s best and brightest. Simply put, military families’ quality of life will define who will fight our future wars.

Good solutions need good data

Please do not misunderstand, military spouse employment has come a long way, but perhaps not as far as it should. The amazing strides made in veteran employment can offer a useful benchmark.

While military spouse unemployment has stubbornly remained at around seven times the national average, veteran unemployment has dropped to the point that it is now at or below the national average. That stark difference is due to a somewhat uncomplicated algorithm: Every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the veteran unemployment numbers, and when there is a spike, there is usually a congressional hearing not long after. Because of this visibility — and the efforts it encourages — veteran unemployment has actually been below the national average for over five years.

Without an equivalent “finger on the pulse” for military spouses, theirs will continue to be a tertiary issue, and our nation can’t afford that any longer.

With less than 25 percent of eligible young people able to enlist due to obesity, drug use, criminal histories, or other disqualifying factors — and even fewer interested in serving — we must start looking at family satisfaction as a national security concern. The good people at the Department of Labor are hard at it but need a (funded) boost from Congress to get over the bureaucratic hurdles of this important data collection.

Reliable data is the key to finding effective solutions. We can tell you — to the person — how many homeless veterans there are at a point in time and how many degrees the Post 9/11 GI Bill funds, but we can’t tell you how many of our military spouses work or do not. We do know who and where these folks are — every member of a military family is enrolled in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) upon birth or marriage — we just do not know whether they are satisfied with their work situation or what help they need.

Once identified and studied, it becomes easier to aid this population with the tools and policies that can help. 

Just the beginning

In the meantime, concerned government, private, and non-profit leaders will continue to act, but guided by anecdotal information and gut feelings, without the hard data to know what is really needed.

The people we all collectively “thank for their service” — those men and women in uniform and their spouses, children, caregivers and survivors — are worth every effort, so I encourage employers and lawmakers to do their part to move the needle with actions and innovations, not just words. That starts with gathering and reporting reliable data.

Rosemary Williams is the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, as well as the former assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She currently is Specialist Executive at Deloitte Services LP and serves on five nonprofit boards in support of the military and veteran community.

Tags Military military readiness Military Spouse Unemployment

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