Military spouses face unique challenges when it comes to employment. Frequent moves and deployments often make it difficult to establish a career. However, the majority of military spouses do work outside the home. This article will explore employment statistics for military spouses, the obstacles they face in the job market, and resources available to help them find and maintain fulfilling careers.
Do Military Spouses Work Outside the Home?
Yes, most military spouses are employed. According to a 2018 survey by Blue Star Families, 63% of active duty military spouses are in the labor force, either working or actively looking for work. This is slightly lower than the overall national labor force participation rate of around 67% for adult women in the United States.
However, when looking specifically at military spouses of enlisted service members in grades E1-E4, labor force participation jumps to 84%. These junior enlisted spouses have employment rates on par with their civilian counterparts. As rank increases, military spouse employment rates decline. For spouses of senior enlisted service members in grades E5-E9, the employment rate drops to 64%. For officers’ spouses, it falls further to 52%.
Employment Rates by Service Branch
There are some variations in employment rates depending on the service branch:
|Service Branch||Employment Rate|
|Marine Corps Spouses||60%|
|Air Force Spouses||68%|
Air Force spouses have the highest employment rate at 68%, while Army spouses have the lowest at 57%. However, spouses across all service branches have majority employment rates.
Employment Rate While Spouse Is Deployed
Deployment can impact military spouse employment in a couple of different ways. Some spouses choose to take a leave of absence or quit their jobs prior to a deployment due to child care and household responsibilities. Others may increase their work hours to compensate for the lost income.
According to a 2015 survey, 56% of spouses were employed during their service member’s deployment. However, rates varied depending on whether there were children in the home:
|Children at Home?||Employment Rate When Spouse Deployed|
|Children Ages 0-5||43%|
|Children Ages 6-18||59%|
Spouses with no children at home had the highest employment rate at 66%. Those with young children ages 0-5 had the lowest rate at 43%. This demonstrates the impact of childcare responsibilities on military spouse employment during deployments.
Why Don’t All Military Spouses Work?
The majority of military spouses are employed, but their unemployment rate is still higher compared to their civilian counterparts. Why is this? Military spouses face a unique set of barriers that can make entering, staying in, and advancing in a career exceptionally difficult.
One of the biggest challenges military spouses face is frequent relocations. On average, military families move every 2-3 years. With each move, spouses must search for a new job. They have to navigate different state licensing requirements, lose seniority at work, and often take a pay cut. This can make it difficult to maintain careers that require years of experience, licenses, or specialized training.
For example, teachers, healthcare workers, accountants, and lawyers can struggle with meeting certification requirements in each new state they move to. Even in fields without licensing, it takes time to rebuild seniority, contacts, and expertise each time a military spouse starts a new job due to a PCS move.
Military Spouse Underemployment
Because of frequent relocations, many military spouses find themselves underemployed. Underemployment refers to someone who is overqualified or overeducated for their current job.
Consider this common example:
An Army spouse worked as a hospital nurse making $70,000 a year before her husband joined the military. After relocating for his duty station, the only nursing job she can find is in a clinic for $45,000 a year. Although still employed as nurse, she is underemployed because her skills and experience qualify her for higher paying nursing roles.
Underemployment is a major issue for military spouses. The Blue Star survey found 52% of working military spouses felt underemployed in their current job. Challenges obtaining licenses and the short timeframe at each duty station make it difficult to find jobs that align with education level and previous work experience.
Gaps in Resumes
Frequent moves also lead to gaps in military spouses’ resumes. When looking strictly at employment dates, a military spouse may appear to have been unemployed for months or even years between duty stations.
In reality, they likely left their prior job due to a PCS move. However, to employers unfamiliar with military life, these resume gaps can still be red flags that hurt spouses’ chances of landing an interview.
Remote and Rural Duty Stations
Where the military sends families also impacts spousal employment. Some duty stations are in very remote or rural areas with smaller job markets and fewer professional opportunities.
For example, junior enlisted families are more likely to be stationed at these remote locations. This contributes to the 84% employment rate for E1-E4 spouses since limited job options exist.
Small towns near bases may lack options for spouses with specialized career experience. Long commutes to the nearest major city for work are common. Some military families even live on bases or ships with no employment opportunities for spouses at all.
Lack of Portable Careers
Most civilian careers are not designed to move. When military families PCS every few years, spouses in careers like teaching, law enforcement, healthcare, law, and many others cannot take their jobs with them.
Having a truly portable, location-independent career that can transfer anywhere in the world is rare. This impacts not just employment rates, but military spouse career advancement and wage growth as well.
Childcare Costs and Availability
Affordable and accessible childcare is critical for any working parent. However, military families frequently struggle finding childcare at each new duty station.
Waitlists for on-base child development centers can be months long. The average annual cost of childcare for children under 5 is $12,000 per year – an prohibitively expensive amount for many junior enlisted and military families.
Like civilian parents, the high costs and waitlists for quality childcare pose a significant barrier to employment for military spouses. This especially impacts spouses who do not have family nearby to help with childcare while they work.
Deployments and Frequent Separations
Deployments create unique emotional and logistical challenges for military families. The spouse left behind must handle all household, childcare, and financial responsibilities alone. This can impact their ability to maintain employment, especially if they need to take leave to handle affairs while their service member is deployed.
Even outside of deployments, frequent separations for training and TDYs require military spouses to function as single parents for weeks or months at a time. The daily uncertainties of military life also cause stress that can negatively impact spouses’ work performance.
Bias Against Military Spouses
Unfortunately, bias against hiring military spouses remains common among some employers. Concerns about frequent moves, deployments, and military life often dissuade them from hiring otherwise qualified candidates.
In a Blue Star survey, over 75% of military spouses felt unable to honestly discuss their military affiliation with prospective employers due to fears of discrimination. This prevents them from explaining gaps in employment or the reasons why they are relocating.
The biases some companies have against military spouses makes entering and re-entering the workforce with each PCS move even harder.
How Do Military Spouses Cope with Employment Challenges?
Despite the many obstacles, most military spouses find ways to successfully balance military life demands with rewarding careers. Here are some of the strategies for maintaining employment as a military spouse:
Seeking Portable Career Fields
Some spouses choose career fields that are more transferable across state lines and duty stations. Jobs in finance, journalism, online marketing, education, insurance, and technology can be done remotely from anywhere with minimal disruption from PCS moves.
Working for national corporations, the federal government, schools, or community organizations with locations nationwide also improves portability. While finding entirely “PCS-proof” jobs is difficult, focusing on fields with transferable skills and national mobility can expand employment options.
Pursuing higher education, advanced certifications, and training expands the career possibilities available to military spouses. Further education also helps spouses qualify for more senior-level positions with higher salaries.
Many military spouses opt to advance their education and experience as much as possible during the limited time at each duty station. This enables them to command higher salaries and have improved job prospects with each PCS move.
Starting Portable Businesses
Some entrepreneurially-minded spouses start location independent businesses like consulting, writing, web design, social media management, sales, crafts, tutoring, and coaching. The rise of the digital economy has expanded options for service-based businesses that can move with military families.
While owning a business is challenging, it offers military spouses the flexibility and portability traditional employers often cannot provide. Expanding skills in areas like marketing, communication, management, and technology can help spouses create successful remote businesses.
Volunteering allows military spouses to avoid resume gaps while also giving back to their communities. Joining organizations like the PTA or leading volunteer efforts for military non-profits helps maintain professional engagement.
Volunteering in fields related to one’s occupation can also expand expertise. For example, an accountant could volunteer doing taxes for low-income families. This keeps accounting skills fresh while avoiding long periods of unemployment when moving.
Seeking Veteran-Friendly Employers
Some companies actively recruit and support military spouses due to the unique skills and experience they bring. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation maintains a database of over 300 employers committed to hiring military spouses.
Targeting these military-friendly companies improves the odds of securing stable employment. Some even offer remote work options that allow spouses to maintain consistent employment regardless of duty station.
Networking and Mentorship
Networking with fellow military spouses who’ve built successful careers can provide invaluable mentorship. Groups like the Military Spouse Employment Partnership connect spouses just starting out with those thriving in fields like business, healthcare, finance, and technology.
Seeking guidance from other military spouses who’ve navigated the same career challenges can help new job seekers follow their footsteps. Having a strong support network is key for overcoming obstacles to advancement.
Are Resources Available to Help Employ Military Spouses?
Yes, many programs exist to help military spouses overcome barriers to employment. Here are a few of the resources available:
Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP)
MSEP is a Department of Defense program that partners with hundreds of employers committed to recruiting and hiring military spouses. MSEP helps connect spouses with military-friendly jobs and provides career coaching.
SECO Professional Licensing Reimbursement
To help offset the costs of transferring professional licenses after a PCS move, the Army’s Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO) program offers up to $1,000 in license reimbursement.
My Career Advancement Account (MyCAA)
MyCAA provides eligible military spouses with up to $4,000 in financial aid to pursue licenses, credentials, or associate degrees in high demand fields. This helps spouses further education for portable career paths.
Military OneSource Military Spouse Scholarships
Scholarships through Military OneSource help military spouses cover the costs of pursuing degrees or occupational licenses. Awards range from $500 to $2,500.
Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Program
Backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Hiring Our Heroes assists military spouses with finding employment through resume help, career coaching, networking events and more.
Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO)
SECO offers career counseling, education guidance, and resources to help military spouses gain skills and advance their careers. They assist with job searches, resumes, networking and more.
Accessing these programs and resources can help military spouses overcome the unique challenges they face pursuing meaningful education and employment.
Balancing military life demands with rewarding, stable employment is no easy feat – but it is certainly possible. While military spouses face obstacles, the majority are employed and carve out successful, portable careers.
Frequent moves and deployments present undeniable challenges in maintaining steady careers. However, pursuing education, leveraging transferable skills, starting businesses, and using military resources can all help to expand professional opportunities.
With dedication and support, military spouses continue proving they are capable, flexible, highly skilled members of the workforce. Their experiences make them assets to any employer. As more companies realize this, the tide is slowly turning towards better employment and advancement opportunities.
While some barriers remain, programs aimed at hiring and supporting military spouses are lowering these obstacles. The career outlook for military spouses across diverse fields is growing progressively brighter. By pursuing knowledge, networking, and options like remote work or education, today’s military spouse is primed for the rewarding and portable career they deserve.