Trading a banking career for scuba sales takes some flexibility, and Brian Alvarado’s seen it firsthand.
“I have a friend who’s a military spouse — his spouse is stationed in Guam — and he went from being an executive at a bank to working at a dive shop,” Alvarado said. “That was something he had to do. He decided, ‘I don’t want to spend three years away from my spouse.’ [His] job is not portable, so he went to the first interview and ... he took the first job he could get.”
Alvarado is director of workforce development for Hiring Our Heroes, a national nonprofit that connects veterans and their families to employment, and his friend’s career detour is typical of the hurdles military spouses face as they move between states and countries.
“We have to be resilient as military spouses,” said Alvarado, a military spouse himself. “We have to be willing to change lanes and go with the flow and just make sure that we’re always polished and ready to go in whatever opportunity is in front of us.”
The reality, he said, is “it’s a possibility that I’m going to have to put my spouse’s career and journey ahead of my own.
“You might go from San Diego to Fort Polk, Louisiana, where there’s just nothing there unless you are in a position where you can have a portable job and take it with you.”
Military spouses have always faced obstacles in finding employment and building careers, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. A flash survey released in March by Hiring Our Heroes shows the national unemployment rate for military spouses is 38 percent, compared with the national unemployment rate of 6.1 percent.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, even before COVID-19, military spouses faced a 22 percent unemployment rate and a 26 percent wage gap compared to their civilian counterparts.
When Hiring Our Heroes launched a nationwide initiative in 2018 to place 100,000 military spouses in jobs over the course of three years, the organization estimated military spouse unemployment stood at 16 percent. Hiring Our Heroes blew past that 100,000 goal eight months early, with more than 105,000 commitments to hire military spouses by the fall of 2020.
Hiring Our Heroes’ new program, Discover the Talent, builds on that success while addressing ongoing employment obstacles.
“One thing we have to keep in mind is that even if we hire military spouses, they still have to PCS,” Alvarado explained. “They still have to move, so building a coalition of companies and putting them inside these networks ... within communities is helping to lower the amount of time that [military spouses] are unemployed after a move.”
The program encourages businesses of all sizes to partner with Hiring Our Heroes to target military spouses for job opportunities. Companies register with Discover The Talent and let military spouses know they are ready to hire immediately through virtual and in-person networking events hosted by Hiring Our Heroes. Employers also receive a social media toolkit that helps them reach potential employees. Some companies have roles specifically for military spouses.
“There are companies that have made a commitment that, ‘This role at my company, I still have a military spouse [in the role] and when that spouse has to move, we bring in [another military spouse],’” he said.
For other military spouses, finding a potential employer is no help if their professional licensing lags. A 2019 Department of Defense survey showed one in five military spouses who work in a licensed profession had to wait 10 months or more to get their credential after a move. Department of Labor figures show 34 percent of military spouses work in occupations that require licenses.
The DoD announced in March that it signed several grants that will allow the Council of State Governments to work with employers to create interstate compacts for licensing in teaching, social work, cosmetology, massage therapy and dentistry/dental hygiene. Some compacts already exist — in nursing and physical therapy, for example — but no nationwide compact exists.
Colorado has joined several compacts over the years and Alvarado says that impacts how long military spouses face unemployment after a move.
“Spouses are able to start work right away and then get re-licensed while they’re [working], so that they don’t have a gap in employment,” he said, “and some of them are just accepted into other states’ licenses in full.”
In fact, “Colorado Springs has been instrumental in building opportunity for military spouse employment,” Alvarado said, “and they were one of the very first communities that came on board and said, ‘Look, we get it.’
“A lot of the reason is because you guys have employers that are nationwide employers. You have the government contractors; you have the federal government… and then USAA is a leading partner in building opportunities for military spouse employment. … A lot of really great partner employers are in that area.”
CONNECTING THE DOTS
Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center is also changing the employment landscape for military spouses in Colorado Springs. Mt. Carmel began the MilSpouse Career Program in 2018, and Army spouse Ashley Hardy is one of the organization’s military spouse peer navigators.
Hardy met her soldier husband when he was stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and she lived an hour away in Brunswick. Hardy was used to balancing work and study as a single parent, and was determined to continue her criminal justice bachelor’s program online after the couple married and PCSed to Hawaii in 2017. She finished her degree two months before they moved — now as a family of five — to Colorado Springs in December 2019.
Hardy knows the drill, and uses her experience to help other spouses.
“I don’t think I would love the job as much as I do if I was not a military spouse. Because if I wasn’t a military spouse, I can’t tell another military spouse what they’re going through or understand. …” Hardy said. “I empathize a lot with these clients.”
Mt. Carmel Director of Operations Paul Price calls Hardy an “integrator” for her ability to connect spouses with job coaching, certifications, and services.
“People come in looking for a job, she can get a read on them,” he said. “And then they need other services — they need help paying their rent or they need some financial education or they need some behavioral health counseling, or they need education credentials — and she’s able to work with the other teams in our building to line up those services.”
When Hardy joined Mt. Carmel in October 2020, only four spouses were enrolled in the Milspouse Career Program and three were being placed. In April 2021, 12 spouses were enrolled and seven were placed. Price believes it’s people like Hardy who will help give military spouses the best chance to have fulfilling work by enrolling them in job training, tailoring their resumes and providing other services to prepare them for the workforce.
“We don’t just say, ‘Hey, you’re looking for a job here at the company?’” Price said. “We actually train them and we connect the dots, if you will.”