4 Ideas to Help Military Spouses Maintain a Career

Here I am at 30, at my first official function as a member of the press.

Is it unreasonable for a military spouse to have a career? This is the question that plagues me. It doesn’t come alone. I also wonder, will I ever earn more than half of my husband’s salary? When can my career take precedence in our family? And if we ever get to the point where my career can take the helm, will it be too late?

It’s hard to be a military spouse. Frequent moves, deployments and inadequate access to childcare make it nearly impossible for military spouses to maintain a steady career. We’re overwhelmingly unemployed or underemployed, especially when compared to our civilian counterparts.

Here are some troubling statistics:

I’ve seen a ton of excellent coverage on how difficult it is for military spouses to manage a career compared to our civilian counterparts. It’s great to raise this awareness, but most of the articles on the difficulty military spouses face neglect to propose concrete solutions that would alleviate the difficulties.

After talking to some spouses, here are some concrete ideas I’ve come up with that may help fix the system. Some are more realistic than others. If you like or agree with any of these ideas, don’t just nod to your computer. Feel free to reach out to your local congressional or senate representatives to make similar suggestions. I’ll be forwarding a letter version of this blog to my current reps. If you’d like a copy of the letter version, with slightly less colorful language, feel free to contact me and I’ll forward it to you.

Here are my 4 ideas to help military spouses maintain a career:

Expedite the Child Development Home certification process

Ask a military spouse what the greatest challenge to his or her career is and you’ll likely get one answer: access to affordable, reliable childcare. You may wonder how this is any different from working families anywhere. Military life provides some unique challenges though.

It’s common anywhere for kids to spend some amount of time on a waitlist for daycare. Now imagine needing to start back at the bottom of that waitlist every 2 to 3 years. And those waitlists can be long. My son waited for 9 months to get a spot at our local Child Development Center (CDC).

Add to that the complication that most military families are geographically isolated from extended family support networks. If my son gets sick and can’t go to daycare, I have to stay home with him. If my niece gets sick, one of 2 doting grandmothers is likely to come watch her. Not having extended family nearby makes childcare significantly more complicated.

Child Development Homes (CDH) are a good way for working families to get childcare and provide welcome home-businesses for others. It’s a win-win. To open a CDH, a provider needs to complete an application, undergo an extensive background check, pass a medical screen and have regular in-home visits.

The certification process to offer CDH care is a mixed blessing though. All parents want to know that their kids are in a safe environment with responsible workers who aren’t secretly ex-cons. That peace of mind is priceless. Unfortunately, the process can be very long. A neighbor wanted to open a CDH in her home on base, but realized the certification would take so long that she would need to move again by the time it came through. Then, as far as I can tell, she would need to start the background check and home inspection process over again with each move.

The difficulty in getting certified as a CDH provider has led many people to open unlicensed in-home daycares. I’m sure some of these unlicensed homes are fine, but they aren’t a solution, and the lack of oversight can make them dangerous. In March of this year, a 7-month-old girl died in an unlicensed daycare here in Hawaii. I have to wonder if there were more licensed in-home daycares available, this little girl might still be alive. 

It’s imperative that childcare workers are properly vetted, but the process doesn’t need to drag out. Further, it’s not necessary to re-start the certification with each move. In a perfect world, the certification process wouldn’t take more than 6 weeks and would transfer to each new location with military moves. Of course, each new home needs an inspection and providers need to have regular check-ups to ensure they are still qualified. Streamlining the process helps military spouses get better access to childcare while also providing an income source for other military families who are interested in opening their homes as a daycare.

Fix USAJobs

The federal government hiring website, USAJobs, is a bureaucratic nightmare. Government hiring in general is a nightmare, but the hiring website in particular is terrible.

A little background: all federal government jobs are listed on USAJobs. Everything from a line cook at the base cafeteria to high-level program managers are hired via USAJobs. It’s a federal requirement. Frequently, these jobs are posted online to meet federal guidelines, but the job is effectively already promised to someone within the organization as a promotion or transfer. While these look like competitive job openings, the hiring managers are only going to look at the resume of the person they plan to hire. As a former federal employee and job seeker, I’ve seen this and both benefited from and been victim to this practice.

Then let’s say you see a job opening on USAJobs and it isn’t a fake-out post that’s essentially promised to someone else (you won’t be able to tell the difference though). When you apply, you need to completely rewrite your resume using keywords pulled from the job posting. How do you know which words are the right keywords? Guessing. Experience helps, but it’s not a guarantee you’ll figure out the magic words to get your resume noticed. Because if you don’t rewrite your resume with keywords, chances it won’t pop up on a search are nobody is going to look at it.

On top of all this, federal jobs have a rubric of preferences that dictate hiring. Veterans, current and former federal employees, and spouses (among others) are all supposed to have hiring preference. Most job applications make it nearly impossible for a spouse to note her/his preference unless they find the listing through the priority placement program (PPP), which is another can of worms I don’t even want to touch right now. If spouses can’t note their preference on an application, they are often automatically disqualified. It’s a mess. There are supposedly some changes coming this year to help alleviate this particular issue, but I’m not optimistic.

I honestly don’t know the best way to fix this system. Maybe working with civilian hiring sites would help. What I do know is that the most accurate term to describe USAJobs is clusterfuck.

Create easier inter-state career licensing

For better or worse, the United States is a collection of independently governed bodies, known as states. Each state has its own unique laws and licensing requirements for specific career fields.  There are some careers that I often see touted as great for spouses because you can do them anywhere, such as teachers or nurses. Unfortunately, these professions, along with a host of others, have different licensing requirements in different states.

Some of the licensure requirements make sense to me. A real estate agent probably needs to be certified in the state where s/he practices as each state has unique laws. But nurses? Does medicine somehow change when you cross state lines? There are a slew of careers that require state-specific licensing even though the actual work performed doesn’t vary by location. There are some state licensing compacts aimed to alleviate the challenges spouses face by frequent moves across state lines, but it’s not enough.

Maybe I’m being naïve, but I don’t see why there aren’t more federal career licenses that transcend state borders. I get that the US is a collection of states, but we are all still subject to federal laws. If that’s not viable, I feel the federal government should make a concerted effort to establish and encourage more inter-state licensing compacts to help ease the burden on military families.

Enable military families to stay in one geographic region for extended periods

Moving is disruptive. It’s often listed as one of the ten most stressful life events a person is likely to encounter. For many military spouses, each move means quitting whatever job they have and starting the search all over again. This leads them to starting at the bottom of the career ladder repeatedly at a new company. Also, as most families move ever 2 to 3 years, spouses can usually forget about staying with a company long enough to become vested in a 401K retirement plan.

It seems obvious to me that changing the system to allow and reward service members to stay in one duty station for extended periods would alleviate many of the difficulties spouses face in finding and maintaining a career. The military cuts orders for different jobs in months—12, 18, 24, 36 etc. Why not have longer orders for various jobs? I understand that that’s not always possible, but it seems silly that just as someone is getting into the groove of a position and making progress, they’re moved on to something else.

Additionally, some careers in the military penalize members for staying in one place for too long. It’s not just unusual for us to have been in Hawaii for nearly 5 years—it’s also a potentially risky career move for my spouse. He’s not going to get kicked out, but it might limit opportunities down the road. We’ll have to wait and see. It would be better if we didn’t have to worry about that and instead rejoice in our relative stability.

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