By Zirconia Alleyne
Juggling a career with family demands is tough, but managing a career with family and military life is a class act for spouses who set their minds to it.
From PCSing to a different state, to finding a job commensurate to your experience, to finding child care that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, to finding a job with a company that understands military life, holding onto a job — let alone a career — as a military spouse is anything but easy.
In 2013, research from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey showed that 30 percent of military spouses between the ages 18 and 24 are unemployed, more than three times the unemployment rate of civilian spouses.
That same year, the Military Officers Association of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University conducted The Military Spouse Survey on Employment, which showed that 90 percent of spouses with jobs believe they are underemployed, having more formal education/experience than their job required.
So, what do the numbers show? Not only is it tough to get a job as a military spouse, but it’s even tougher to land a position in a field that you’ve studied or gained experience.
Although it’s an uphill battle, it’s not impossible, and organizations are sprouting up across the nation to help spouses maintain their place in the employment realm.
In Gear Career, a national nonprofit that promotes professional and career development of military spouses, is building a camaraderie of spouses who want to maintain their career while supporting their servicemember.
Take it from Josie Beets, co-leader of the In Gear Career chapter at Fort Campbell. The 37-year-old law school graduate met her husband, Sean, also a law school graduate, while volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“We graduated from law school in 2008, got married that fall, and he was whisked away a couple weeks later,” she said. “He did seven months of training with the Army JAG Corps, and our first duty station was Fort Polk.”
Josie decided to stay in New Orleans during their first year of marriage, but she quickly realized that living apart wasn’t feasible.
“Married people live in the same house for a reason,” she said.
Luckily, Josie was licensed to practice law in Louisiana, so she found jobs relevant to her career around Fort Polk. However, when they got orders to Fort Campbell in 2012, that was a different story — she needed to take the Tennessee bar exam in order to practice in the state.
“We got here in July and the next test wasn’t offered until February,” she said.
The couple expected to be at Fort Campbell for a little over a year, so Josie decided not to spend thousands of dollars to prepare for and take the bar and then practice for only a few months if she found a job with a law firm. So, Josie took a break from the professional realm, sort of. During that time, she found out about In Gear Career.
“I was looking for a support network,” she said. “As military spouses, we’re really good at certain things — supporting each other through deployment, supporting each other having a baby while our soldiers are deployed, and I look at In Gear Career as encompassing all of that into a career network.”
The Fort Campbell chapter has 40-50 members signed up for its newsletter. The group of mostly women tries to meet once or twice a month. “A dozen or so” spouses show up, Josie said. Their careers vary from law to media, education, healthcare and more.
“What I really like about the group is we have a variety of spouses,” Josie said. “We have people who have taken off to raise their kids who want to keep their hand in the professional networking realm.”
Josie, who has two children of her own, said there isn’t any distinction of rank among the group, which tends to happen in other military social settings.
“It’s the one place where none of that really matters,” she said.
Since joining In Gear Career, Josie took a job as the public policy coordinator for the Tennessee Bar Association.
“I have a great national network of friends, and a friend in Mississippi sent me the job description,” she said. “I applied and got it.” But, getting a job in your field isn’t that simple for most military spouses.
Getting the job
In the Military Spouse Employment Survey, 55 percent of respondents said it was difficult landing their current job, and 85 percent said it’s difficult to get hired at any job as a milspouse. Why is this?
Another 50 percent indicated that their career field requires licensing or certifications that must be renewed after each PCS. And, others said employers expect milspouses to move within a year or so.
“I’ve had spouses be asked indirectly, ‘How long are you going to be here?’” Josie said.
Having a network to express the issues that career-minded spouses run into helps them come up with solutions. Josie has a few suggestions for how to deal with the inevitable moving issue and the licensing barrier.
To the moving question, she said, be upfront with potential employers by saying, “We don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but as soon as I know I’m going somewhere else, you will know.”
Then, be prepared to talk about yourself and your skills in a positive and complimentary manner, which Josie said is a learned skill.
“I’m introverted so this was tough. I’m really good at talking about how awesome I am now, but it’s a learned skill that came through desperation.”
The Military Credentialing and Licensing Task Force, launched by President Obama in 2012, helped streamline license portability for military spouses, meaning a license or certification in good standing can be transferred or used temporarily in another state while stationed in the new state. However, according to the National Military Family Association, some states exclude teachers and attorneys from this exemption and it’s difficult to meet the new state’s requirements.
For example, the Tennesee Bar will accept a license from another state if the lawyer was in good standing and practiced five years in their previous state. Like Josie, many spouses haven’t been stationed in one state for five consecutive years, so the barrier is still there.
Josie is working with the Military Spouse JD Network — a national organization that advocates for rule revisions for military spouses with Juris Doctorates — to get a licensing rule passed in Tennesee that would eliminate the five-year rule for military spouse attorneys.
So far, 12 states have passed a special licensing rule proposed by MSJDN: Idaho, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, Illinois, South Dakota, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Oklahoma.
“Military Spouse JD Network is fighting to get a pass to practice in Tennessee,” Josie said. “Eight other attorneys passed a petition to the Supreme Court to get a pass.”
The proposed rule is now before the Tennessee Supreme Court and is open for comments until July 31.
The key to being job ready is maintaining your skills through strategic volunteering, said Katie Lopez, the director of military and governmental affairs at the Christian County Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s something that I’m really passionate about,” she said. “For military spouses it can be difficult to have a portable career when you’re constantly moving with your servicemember, but it’s not impossible.”
Katie serves as co-lead for the In Gear Career chapter with Josie and has a master’s degree in social responsibility and sustainable communities from Western Kentucky University. Katie said she never saw herself being a military spouse but didn’t want it to give up her career when she moved to Fort Campbell two years ago after marrying her husband.
“Although I couldn’t find paid employment when we first moved here, I got involved and strategically volunteered,” she said.
She started volunteering with the Association of the U.S. Army and became a member of their board. She also got involved with the spouses club, the Army Community Service and the Family Readiness Group within her husband’s unit.
Once her current position came open last year, she already had a rapport with people in the community.
“I had those relationships with people because I volunteered with AUSA, and they were able to write letters of recommendation for me,” she said.
Josie, who met Katie in Starbucks last year, said relationships built while volunteering can last a lifetime. The pair relaunched the In Gear Career chapter soon after meeting each other and realizing they had similar goals. The group celebrated its one-year anniversary in February.
To other military spouses, Katie said don’t give up on your career and try to embrace the challenges of each move.
Josie, who will be moving again this summer, said stay positive about the job search. She plans to put her own advice to use very soon.
“When we moved here from Fort Polk, I was very negative and that affected my ability to find a job,” she said. “I’m trying something new and I’m trying to be a lot more positive. I have some good leads, I’m going to meet with some people and continue networking.”
To other Fort Campbell spouses, Josie said join In Gear Career.
“If you are crazy enough like me to think you can have a career in this military lifestyle, then you have to join our group.
“We’re not looking for jobs. We’re not looking for things to keep us busy. We’re thinking about building a career.”