Jobless rate for military spouses nearly 7 times higher than national average
As a long-time advocate for military spouses, Sue Hoppin decided 2019 was the year to change the script on an annual tradition. Instead of celebrating the National Military Spouse Appreciation Day, held each year on the Friday before Mother’s Day, Hoppin turned it into a day of service.
The founder and president of the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN) “stormed The Hill,” as she puts it, with roughly two dozen other military spouses to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Their mission? Advocate for changes to help military spouses get hired.
“We’re not going to sit around and wait anymore. We are just going to actively engage and actively advocate for the change that we think is required in our community,” explains Hoppin.
Hoppin is not new to the cause. She’s been an advocate for military spouses for 15 years, nearly ten of which as leader of NMSN, which speaks out on behalf of military spouse professionals.
When she first started advocating for military spouses, she recalls being told it “wasn’t a thing.” Now, it’s very much “a thing.” The number of advocacy organizations devoted to military spouses has grown and so has the attention on the employment obstacles they face. Hoppin describes it as a “sea change.”
Spouses experience higher-than-average joblessness
The Council of Economic Advisors, for one, issued a report in 2018 on the disadvantages facing military spouses in the labor market. It estimates there are 690,000 military spouses in the U.S., most of whom are women (92 percent) and are more educated than their civilian counterparts.
While it’s difficult to get an exact read on the unemployment rate of military spouses since it’s not tracked consistently, a Defense Department survey found it to be around 24 percent in 2017, far exceeding the national average.
At the same time, for many military families, a second income is needed to pay the bills. “Before, people might have been looking at the military spouse community through the lens of the traditional 1950s housewife. ‘You don’t need a second job. You don’t need a second income in the home. You don’t have to work,’” says Hoppin. “That’s no longer the case. Military families require that second income to live. They are dual-income families.”
Frequent moves and location contribute to hiring hurdles
The DOD report notes that military spouses are less likely to participate in the labor force. Their lifestyle is a big reason why. Military families, on average, move every two to three years, and they don’t have a choice on where they are relocated.
The families are often relocated to installations outside urban areas where their employment opportunities are limited. It’s one reason why Hoppin’s group supports a proposed change to existing federal tax law.
The current Work Opportunity Tax Credit, or WOTC, provides a credit to employers hiring people from groups facing “significant barriers to employment,” such as military veterans. Legislation was introduced in the House Ways and Means Committee in May to extend that credit to military spouses.
“To me, that’s of particular interest,” explains Hoppin, “because I don’t think we are going to move the needle on spouse unemployment until we get the small and medium-sized businesses involved.”
Licensing requirements vary state to state
Another hurdle facing military spouses in the workplace is licensing requirements that differ from state to state in a number of fields such as health care, teaching, and real estate. While states have tried to ease those burdens over the years, research done by the University of Minnesota in 2017 found that information on the ground about implementing those changes has been uneven.
Some states are taking steps to make occupational licenses portable. For example, in April, Arizona became the first state to universally recognize out of state licenses. Several other states passed laws this year easing licensing restrictions on military spouses moving across state lines, with the Department of Labor tracking the licensing efforts.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper also joined the push for portable licenses for military spouses, making an “urgent” appeal in a letter to state governors in September.
Different countries have different work laws
While those efforts can lead to change inside the United States, spouses of the approximately 15 percent of the 1.3 million active-duty members who have to move overseas face another set of hurdles.
Trish Alegre-Smith, a military spouse and U.S. Air Force veteran, found that out firsthand. One year after starting a professional photography business in Washington D.C., her husband, who serves in the Air Force, was reassigned. “I had regular clients, I had regular jobs and then we got orders to Germany in 2014.”
For her, just finding out all the rules for military spouses to work overseas was a challenge in itself. For starters, there was the Status of Forces Agreement which the U.S. makes with each individual country. It governs the kinds of employment military family members can have, as well as the kind of taxes they pay.
“It’s a huge document,” says Alegre-Smith. On top of that, she says, there were specific rules set at the duty station in Germany.
She says pulled the employment information she needed from all different resources and has since been vocal about the need to make that information more accessible. “There’s definitely a much more concerted effort by, not just the installations, but the services themselves to make it easier for military spouses to get that information if you want to continue running your business, give that information up front,” advises Alegre-Smith.
For her, though, running her business overseas proved too daunting. Potential photography work in Germany was located too far from the installation where her family was based to make it work.
She wound up taking side jobs on the installation until her husband was reassigned in 2017. Alegre-Smith considers herself fortunate that her family was able to return to Washington D.C. where she could resume her photography business since she had maintained her contacts and her portfolio while overseas.
An advocate for the military spouse community
Alegre-Smith credits the National Military Spouse Network with helping her grow her business by connecting her with other professional military spouses, offering her job advice, and helping her feel a part of a community. “It was the first place where I felt I belonged,” she says. “I said what my challenges were, what I did. It wasn’t an unusual story. They all had a similar story.”
It’s that community that founder Sue Hoppin hopes to foster as she encourages military spouses to build portable careers. Beyond financial security for families, Hoppin says there’s a bigger reason why she and other advocates work to make sure that military spouses who want to work can work. National security.
Hoppin says Americans take for granted that the military is made up of an all-volunteer force. “If we want to retain and recruit the best of the best, we need to make sure that a service member never has to choose between what’s best for their family and what’s best for the country,” said Hoppin. “If a military spouse wants to work, they should be able to work regardless of where they are located and that ensures our national security.”
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