Careers still an uphill battle for military spouses

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Among military spouses, the unemployment rate is 16 percent — four times the national average. And of those with work, many are settling for part-time jobs when they’d rather work full-time.

It’s a familiar problem for women and men married to active duty service members. Deployments and frequent moves mean their career paths are constantly interrupted, good jobs are harder to find — and without roots, contacts and local networks, professional advancement is an uphill battle.

Military families need dual incomes and meaningful work as much as civilian families, but statistics show that’s still just a dream for many (see chart below).

“It’s often difficult for military spouses to find new jobs every time they [move] to a new duty station, which can happen every two to three years,” Janet Farley, Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center employment specialist and intern facilitator, said in an email.

Maintaining employment can be such an obstacle, Farley said, many spouses are opting to “geo-bach” — staying behind to continue on their career path while the service member moves on to the next military assignment.

“While that may be professionally beneficial, it comes with its own set of personal challenges,” she said. “Underemployment is a huge issue as well. Spouses who do relocate with their military service member may find jobs but they often settle for jobs well beneath their skill set. This can be incredibly frustrating.”

Finding jobs and careers that are transferable or portable is a real challenge, according to Special Assistant to the Mayor Katie Lally, who serves as military community relations liaison and the co-chairwoman of the Military Spouse Career Committee.

“Spouses may have to start all over again every time they move, and there is an innate hesitancy to mention that our spouse is serving our country for fear we won’t get hired,” she said. “That’s a shame. So, the primary challenge is the [employer] education piece. Statistics show that the average length of employment in our country is about four years. If … an employer can get three extremely productive years from a talented military spouse, what would hold you back?”

Local experts agree military spouses are a valuable untapped resource, and Colorado Springs organizations are focused on educating employers, expanding opportunities for military spouses, and helping both groups connect.

“I would say Colorado Springs is actually one of the more veteran- and military-spouse friendly communities … so I don’t think it’s a very dire situation, but the same challenges that military spouses face everywhere [also] happen here,” said Lindsay Teplesky, who, as deputy director of the Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship Program, helps transitioning military members and spouses find civilian jobs.

A military spouse herself, Teplesky points to her own experience as an example.

“I’m a licensed clinical social worker by trade so every time we move, I have to get a new license if I want to work in that field — and not all the states are very friendly for that,” she said. “That’s one of the challenges that all of us face who have any kind of professional licensure.”

Military spouses with higher levels of education face greater challenges in finding employment, Teplesky said.

“Entry level, minimum-wage-type positions are always available wherever you go. … I think [the challenges facing highly educated military spouses are] probably a natural extension of the challenges you have anyway when you have a higher level of education — you’re competing for a smaller pool of jobs in the first place, but then you add the fact that it’s constantly disrupted. If you’re in an entry level or minimum wage job, continuity of community is not essential, because you can work for King Soopers here, or you can work for King Soopers somewhere else. For higher level folks where your network is important, as well as how long you spend with an employer, that continual upward progression piece is more of a factor.

“When you move and take a position you’re overqualified for because you’re just trying to get your foot in the door somewhere, it’s like you’re taking one step forward, two steps back,” she added. “[Employers] look at that and say, ‘What is this hodge-podge of employment?’ That’s part of the challenge.”

Lally said Colorado has a commitment to occupational licensing reform for military spouses, and the MSCC this year worked with Rep. Terri Carver to submit and pass House Bill 18-1095, which exempts military spouses who are educators from the state reciprocity requirement to have three consecutive years of teaching in a single prior location.

Carver said Colorado has joined a consortium of states in the National Conference of State Legislatures and, led by the Department of Regulatory Agencies, is working to streamline licensure processes, expand reciprocity and standardize licensing criteria.

“A state like Colorado where we also have a demand for skilled workforce … to be able to ease these bottlenecks and have those with great qualifications be able to participate in our labor market — that is a win/win for our local economy, in El Paso County but also statewide,” Carver said.

In May, Colorado Springs was designated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as the nation’s third Military Spouse Economic Empowerment Zone, joining San Antonio and Tampa, Fla., in the program. MSEEZ is a grassroots effort to combat military spouse unemployment and underemployment, promoting collaboration among local business, civic and military communities to establish employment networks.

As low unemployment makes hiring more challenging, military spouses represent “an untapped pool of candidates” for local companies, said Pikes Peak Workforce Center Executive Director Traci Marques.

“I think we have a lot of great resources in our community available to [military spouses],” she added, “and we don’t do a good enough job of sharing that information.”

The Pikes Peak Workforce Center has a military relations specialist, as well as a Military, Veterans and Spouses Coalition which partners with nonprofits and businesses to help transitioning service members, veterans and spouses find meaningful employment.

At Fort Carson, the fellowship program allows for spousal participation. Partnering with PPWFC’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grant allows “displaced homemakers” (those who have lost their last job through no fault of their own — often because of a military move) to qualify for federal funding for a paid internship. And Fort Carson’s Soldier for Life Program includes spouses in all transition programs, helping them connect with businesses and industries in their career fields.

Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center recently launched a MilSpouse Career Program where spouses can access career counseling services, skills training, career readiness workshops and employer events. Mt. Carmel also provides services to spouses and veterans under the House Bill 16-1267 Veterans Service to Career Pilot Program and its Veteran Reintegration Program.

The Military Spouse Career Committee highlights existing local and national career resources available to military spouses, educates hiring managers and supports legislation.

The recent Military, Veteran and Military Spouse Employment expo attracted more than 700 job seekers and 175 companies.

“I would venture to say [employers] caught on quickly to the secret that military spouses are extremely good hires,” Lally said. “They are educated (88 percent have post-high school education, 34 percent are college grads, 15 percent with postgraduate degrees), they are adaptable, very competent at stress management, and they bring diverse backgrounds and creative thinking to the workplace. However, not all employers have received the message, and there is more work to do to educate businesses on the benefits of hiring a military spouse.”

Colorado Springs has “amazing collaborative efforts going on to support military spouse employment,” Lally added. “Other than needing to change some hiring perspectives, and doing more for license reciprocity, we’re in really good shape.” 

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