It was the spring of her senior year of college, and Amy S* was preparing to graduate with a degree in business, HR, and marketing. Involved with several campus organizations and receiving her diploma with the highest honors, Amy was well positioned to launch her career within one of the Fortune 500 environments she dreamed of.
There was, however, one dilemma.
“I wasn’t able to take the traditional job-searching route that most of the other students and my peers were able to take,” she said. “I knew my then-fiance, now-husband would go active duty. And one of the unique challenges that face military spouses and their employment is that we don’t know where we’re going, when we’re going, or how long we’re going to be there.”
Sure enough, two months after graduating and one month after exchanging vows, her husband received the call telling him his first duty station was in Texas — and that he needed to report there in 30 days’ time. That’s when Amy’s job search truly began.
“As soon as I found out we were moving to Texas, I started looking at a couple companies there, messaging their recruiters on LinkedIn, and doing as much networking as I could,” she explained. “I had to get a little creative… because no one that I knew had any contacts in Texas, which was halfway across from the country from where I’d gone to school and built out my network.”
As Amy’s experience points to, the struggle to maintain a consistent network is one of the biggest factors impacting the United States’ over one million military spouses, 23% of whom are unemployed (and yet more are underemployed). Research shows that as many as 85% of jobs today are obtained through a personal connection. But when your lifestyle is so routinely characterized by relocation, accessing the same network-based, upward career trajectory that most professionals follow can be a major challenge. And working in an industry that’s even remotely site-specific? It can feel downright impossible.
That’s where programs like the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) come into play. Sponsored by the Department of Defense (DoD), MSEP has partnered with more than 300 employers — including major corporations like Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Bank of America, CVS, Verizon, AT&T, Starbucks, and Amazon — to connect military spouses with job opportunities and resources. As of 2016, MSEP’s efforts had resulted in more than 90,000 jobs for military spouses — a pretty impressive number, especially when one considers the biases some companies may hold against these spouses, Eddy Mentzer, the DoD’s Family Readiness & Wellbeing Program Manager, said.
“(There’s) this overall question of employers not necessarily seeing the business case for hiring military spouses, as well as not having an understanding of why they would want to hire a military spouse knowing that they might be leaving in two to three years,” Mentzer said. “Why make that investment?”
On the other end of this equation is, of course, the spouses themselves, many of whom are educated and with career ambitions of their own, yet wind up with resumes marred by gaps.
“As a military spouse who relocates on average every two to three years, you develop your career, build your skill set, grow with the organization or team you’re working with — and then you move,” Mentzer said. “You have to start over. So you have this amazing skill set, you’ve got your education and all these different aspects, but you have to start back at the beginning every time.”
That’s precisely what happened to Amy. After spending six months job hunting in Texas, she finally scored a position as a recruiter she was “so excited” about — only to learn within a matter of weeks that her husband had been reassigned to another duty station, in Nevada. The young couple decided they would do long-distance “for however long felt right” so that she could pursue this career opportunity. But after about a year, Amy left Texas to join her husband.
Ultimately, the first year of their marriage had been spent living in four different states, with her husband stationed at three different bases. And after arriving in Nevada, again without any contacts, Amy felt she was “back at square one.”
Lou Candiello, Veteran Program lead at Dell, an MSEP partner, said the sacrifices Amy has had to make are common for military spouses, as well as too-commonly overlooked.
“When folks think about servicemembers serving the country, they tend to think just about the person in uniform,” he said. “(Military spouses) have chosen a life where they’ll be with this person for their lives, and unfortunately they make sacrifices beyond what people understand… I think for them to put country first and their marriage first before themselves, when it comes to having their own career — that speaks volumes to the type of person that they are.”
Of course, the sacrifices and pressures only increase when looking at military families with children, where one’s duty to maintain the so-called “home front” carries added responsibility, said Susan Graye, Talent Acquisition Manager, Veteran and Diversity Programs at fellow-MSEP partner Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
“When a spouse is deployed, it’s almost like being a single parent. There’s additional responsibility, which serves to make someone a phenomenal employee because they’re inherently accountable,” Graye said. “Over the years, we’ve had military spouses who’ve worked for us and made a huge impact in terms of our programs and have been tremendously successful. There’s just this tenacity and ability to deal with stress, program management, and multitasking that makes them incredible employees.”
Thankfully, more companies are beginning to recognize this kind of value in military spouses. An important driver behind this change, Mentzer said, is companies’ willingness to reevaluate the way they approach veteran hiring in general.
“The challenge we’ve encountered at MSEP — and this is changing because of MSEP — is that most of the companies that we work with already had veteran employment programs, but one of the things we focus on is that a veteran employment program is not the same thing as a military spouse employment program,” he said. “Most of the time, military spouses might have been located in the fine print in paragraph three… as a military spouse, if I see ‘Veteran Employment Program’ in the title, I’m not going to look any further.”
Now, many of the companies MSEP partners with have pivoted their veteran hiring strategy to encompass “military community hiring.” Additionally, many of these companies have begun partnering together to help alleviate spouses of the challenges that come with relocating.
“What we’ve seen is our partners working together to retain this talent,” Mentzer explained. “We’ll help a MSEP partner let another MSEP partner know that, hey, we have a great individual we are unable to keep employed because of where they’re relocating to, but you may have that opportunity in that location… that’s why MSEP is so vital, because we are working with large organizations and large corporations that see the business case for hiring military spouses.”
For Amy’s part, her job-seeking experience in Nevada turned around upon being connected to In Gear Career, a program that’s similar to MSEP and powered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s “Hire Our Heroes” initiative. Today, she’s happily employed as a Leadership Development & Culture Specialist within the Caesars Entertainment brand, has found a “tribe” of other career-minded military spouses, and maintains a positive outlook in the face of future relocation uncertainty.
“My husband and I are determined to be flexible and creative in the face of whatever may come next,” she said. “I do think that most companies are willing and interested to hire veterans and military spouses. They want to help their communities, and doing that is a good way to help, not just socially and patriotically, but also economically.”
However, in Amy’s opinion, progress for military spouses can’t rest in the private sector alone. Her “perfect solution” for the challenges spouses face is one that involves another key player — the military itself.
“The military knows everything about my husband’s life; they know every certification and educational attainment he’s ever gotten and everything’s he’s ever done in his community. So why not collect that same data on military spouses?” she asked. “This a talent pool that businesses will want to tap into… but most businesses and people aren’t aware of the unemployment level and economic impact that military spouses face.”
“The best thing we could do,” she concluded, “is create a dialogue around those challenges. That way, we can find data-driven solutions.”
*Last name withheld for security purposes.