28% Unemployment Forces Military Spouses to Get Creative About Work

his Memorial Day, let’s applaud a million women and men who don’t get the attention they deserve: military spouses. They’re the ones who hold down the home front, pay the bills, parent the children, mow the grass. They’re the ones who keep a stiff upper lip for long months at time, not knowing when or how their loved ones are coming home. They’re the ones with the 28% unemployment rate.   

28% is more than three times the unemployment rate for the U.S. population as a whole.  And while the jobless rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has dropped dramatically, it keeps inching up for their husbands and wives. Those military spouses who do have jobs earn 25% less, on average, than civilians in comparable positions. 

This is hardly justifiable, but it can be explained. Military families move around a lot – typically once every 2.5 years. A result is that spouses look like job hoppers when they present their resumes to prospective employers. Military spouses rarely stay in one place long enough to earn a promotion or a raise.  If their soldier comes home with a temporary or permanent disability, balancing work and family becomes an enormous challenge. And so even though military spouses are relatively well educated and demonstrate a strong work ethic, many do not compete well in today’s job market.

There’s good news: business organizations, government agencies, and non-profits are beginning to take notice. They have established employment boards, job fairs, and career counseling services targeting military spouses as well as veterans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, is partnering with Capital One in Hiring 500,000 Heroes, a “national campaign to engage the business community in committing to hire 500,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2014.” The Chamber also works with Academy Women in MilSpouse eMentor, an online support community for military spouses.

While these programs are great, there’s even better news, I believe, in the growing movement toward “portable careers,” which expands employment options not only for military spouses but also for others with mobile lifestyles. Portable careers builds on in-demand and transferable skills that individuals can take with them and re-market, either physically or virtually, wherever they go.  Think accountants, graphic designers, educators, webmasters, writers, IT service providers, electricians, etc.  

In 2007, the U.S. Departments of Defense and Labor launched a portable careers demonstration project for spouses at military installations in eight states. The project provided two-year Career Advancement Accounts (CAA) that could be used to pay for education, training, and certification “to help manage the mobile military lifestyle.” The demonstration was hugely successful, as was the 2009 national roll-out, which quickly became oversubscribed. Almost 98,000 military spouses were enrolled and 38,000 more had applied when the Pentagon suspended it early in 2010.  Responding to anger on the part of military spouses nationwide, the DOD reinstated the program later that year, but with new restrictions.  

Other barriers also stand in the way of portable careers going to scale.These include state licenses or certifications that cannot be transferred across jurisdictions. A nonprofit organization, Military Family, works with the DOD to overcome hurdles military spouses face when trying to transfer credentials. Other organizations provide counseling to help military spouses navigate state and local systems.   

Those who have found work through portable careers have assumed a leadership role in spreading the word. Discussions in the military blogosphere urge spouses to avoid limited thinking about careers that are in-demand anywhere (“nursing and teaching, nursing and teaching…”) and to explore other creative service-economy options like tutoring, mentoring, fundraising, medical transcription, or direct sales.  One military spouse, Stacey Swearengen, started a web-based service for her peers called Military Spouse Portable Career Planning, which was named a Top Innovative Military Start-up by Inc.com.  

As military spouses get creative about their options, they take advantage of other new economy work modes: telecommuting, remote work, home-based businesses, freelance consulting. They’re moving into the full range of opportunities they want for themselves. As one military spouse told Robert Gordon, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy:   “Don't over-engineer things. We want to look for jobs. We want to be empowered." Will empowerment drive down that 28% unemployment rate?  That is the ultimate bottom line.