As corporate leaders, we strive to hire employees who have specific proficiencies and talents for each role, but beyond that, we should also seek individuals who uphold our corporate values, are role models of leadership and can gracefully adapt to changing circumstances. Military spouses are committed to the mission, dedicated to developing strong relationships and hold core values that are desirable attributes for any organization. Often overlooked, undervalued, underemployed or unemployed, this talented group offers an opportunity for corporations to show their support of military families and simultaneously discover a uniquely qualified talent pool.
According to annual research compiled by Blue Star Families (BSF), 35 percent of military spouses are not in the labor force and underemployment is a continued issue for 63 percent of spouses. Additionally, BSF reports the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of military spouses is 20 percent compared to only 3.8 percent for civilian spouses and more than triple the average national unemployment rate. Known as the backbone of the military family unit and sometimes referred to as the CEO, CFO and COO of their families, this group of over 1 million American men and women is one of our country’s best-kept secrets and greatest talent pools for employers in the United States.
At Thayer Leadership, we consistently hear from corporate leaders who want to support veterans and their families but do not know how to start. As a veteran-owned company with 84 percent faculty with former military service and 64 percent staff who are military spouses or former military service, we love giving proven advice about how to support military families.
What should you know about employing military spouses?
- Military spouses are the ultimate Swiss Army knife—resilient, able to adapt to any circumstance and skilled at stress management. As is often said, as soon as the service member leaves for military training, deployment or assignment, Murphy’s Law always comes knocking. Military spouses adapt and overcome challenges daily and are diverse people who have lived all over with a unique understanding of different cultures.
- Most military spouses do not share their affiliation with the military during the hiring or onboarding process, due to expected discrimination from companies or team members not wanting to invest in an employee who will move in a couple of years. However, moving every two years raises red flags on their resume anyway. It is important for corporate recruiters to realize that a military spouse with multiple short-term jobs or gaps in the resume has likely been forced to find a new job when their service member transitions to a new assignment in a new state or country. They are not uncommitted or uninterested in holding down a consistent job. With the heightened acceptability of remote work post-Covid, more employers now can be concerned less about the potential of a military spouse “leaving” due to a military household move and focus instead on that employee’s potential to provide excellent work even if not in a traditional office environment.
- Lack of adequate childcare is a consistent contributing factor keeping military spouses from employment. According to research, only 24 percent of military families say they can find a childcare situation that works for them, either based on price, hours or location. Corporations can support childcare needs with flexible work hours, remote work, subsidized childcare costs or corporate-provided childcare for employees.
- Military families move on average every two or three years for the next duty assignment. Shifting and adapting to a new location is not always easy, especially without family or friends nearby. The service member usually receives at least 30 days of paid leave to transition his or her family and home to an entirely new state or country. The military spouse does not and yet must juggle multiple priorities. Service members sometimes leave months ahead of their families to get started in a mission-essential role, which leaves their spouse to schedule and deal with moving companies, transport their family and pets across the country or ocean, transition their children out of and into new schools, identify new doctors, dentists and medical practitioners for their entire family, set up the new house and if employed, shift their own work to a new location. Companies need to provide flexibility, knowing that if a military spouse’s partner is away on training, deployed, in a mission-essential role, etc., they don’t have the option of sending their children to their grandparents’ house at the end of the school day or having a family member pick up their kids from school when sick, while they continue to work. Employers need to give flexibility to military spouse parents who must leave work on short notice, shift their work hours occasionally or move to another state without accrued time off.
- Most of all, military spouses want to serve in some capacity and support their families. To an employer, it might look like their resume is empty for years if they were a stay-at-home parent, but during that time, they were very active in volunteer leadership roles and responsibilities as well as guiding and teaching their children. While a military spouse’s resume looks different than a normal corporate resume, it has the same skillsets and experiences that employers look for in leaders. Military spouses have been problem-solvers for their families, able to multitask and deal with emergencies calmly.
To bring a personal perspective to what HR leaders should understand when tapping into this talent pool, we talked with several military spouses at Thayer Leadership in West Point, New York:
Stephanie Liggett – Instructional design specialist for Thayer Leadership; MS.Ed., an experienced elementary school teacher for nine years; married to MAJ Chris Liggett with two small children and a family dog.
Jen Smith – Senior experiential manager for Thayer Leadership; summa cum laude at University of Richmond Jepson School of Leadership Studies; graduated top 1 percent of ROTC graduates in country and served four years in U.S. Army; married to LTC Wade Smith with four children and a family dog.
Andrea Blair – Legal contractor for Thayer Leadership; licensed attorney; married to LTC Tim Blair with two small children.
How has your career been impacted as a result of being a military spouse?
“Despite almost 10 years of experience, I would be given administrative duties like making copies instead of lesson plans,” says Liggett. “I was not given the opportunity to utilize my true skillset.” She had to reestablish trust and expertise with each new job while transitioning in and out of classrooms, in and out of states, and obtaining a teaching license in each state where she wished to teach. Before starting in instructional design at Thayer Leadership, Liggett applied for her New York teaching license but still has not received it after one year.
Blair met her husband three years into her career as an attorney. Since marrying, they have moved a total of six times across five different states, which, if employed, would have equated to six jobs at different companies. While some states offer reciprocity in legal licensing, most states require attorneys to take a state-specific portion of the bar exam. This proves difficult as the tests are costly and typically offered only twice a year.
On top of licensing requirements, Blair found it nearly impossible to find a job as an attorney since her family knew they would only live in one location for 10-36 months for her husband’s military assignments. Even for attorney jobs that did not require updated licensing, such as government service jobs, the application process was often so time-consuming that her family would have moved prior to receiving an offer of employment.
“I vividly remember being offered a job in Washington six months after we had moved to California,” recounts Blair. In her current position, since she lives in Texas and is not licensed in New York where our company is headquartered, she is a contractor, not an employee, assisting the company’s legal counsel, who is a New York-licensed attorney. This setup requires flexibility on the side of the hiring company.
When unable to find a job, what do you do to fill your time?
Besides researching school districts, neighborhoods, medical practitioners and job options up to nine months prior to a military move and constantly for the first year upon arrival to a new location, military spouses find alternative ways to fill their time. “We need to have a physical and mental outlet, to be involved with the community. You have to do something outside the house,” says Smith. Military spouses are not a population to sit still for long, so most have done everything from volunteering in leadership roles to serving on boards to becoming certified fitness instructors to honing other skills that could potentially be lucrative.
Smith says, “We were facing a deployment for my husband, and had two little girls, so after transitioning out of the Army myself, stepping back into the workforce was not a high priority for me. I had to hold down the home front, and we were stationed in Germany, so there were limited jobs for military spouses anyway. As a Soldier and Family Readiness Group Leader for my husband’s unit, we had monthly events during deployments and fundraisers and welcome home events when they got home.
“I’ve also been really involved with the Protestant Women of the Chapel (PWOC) and served in leadership positions on pretty much every volunteer board. Additionally, I decided to home-school for two years when we were living in Germany and when we were in Alaska. The school systems were not what we had wanted for our daughters. While stationed in Alaska, I also taught fitness classes and worked as an online guide for Thayer Leadership. All together it felt like a full-time job.”
After the birth of Blair’s first child, she wrote and published a children’s book entitled Goodnight Soldier. The book turned out to be a passion project that she found fulfilling in a professional capacity but also connected her to the Army spouse community. Along with being a full-time mom to two kids, she also started a small business creating custom laser cut and engraved acrylic products for events.
What do you wish employers knew about military spouses as part of the hiring and retention process?
The requirements to start fresh with each move provide military spouses with the tools to identify and build tight and influential friendships and relationships. “That’s what we do as military spouses. We reach out to our community, we reach out to whom we have and we lean on them,” says Liggett. Upon arrival at a new installation, many military spouses immediately connect with Army Community Services (ACS) to work on their resumes and identify relevant jobs to apply for their skillset and experience. Employers searching for dedicated and talented candidates should connect with the closest ACS office to identify local military spouses looking for jobs.
The values of the military—loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and courage—bleed over into home life and therefore become a part of the character of the military spouse and their family, not just the service member. Military spouses are passionate about something, independent, tenacious and willing to put forth as much time and effort as needed to accomplish a goal. Through their unique experiences, often at a young age balancing multiple priorities during stressful times compared to other corporate leaders, they become committed, resilient, resourceful, flexible, dependable and dedicated people who are invaluable employees. While they may have had to take a nontraditional career route, they have so many opportunities presented that have expanded their understanding of life in general, built diverse skillsets and more specifically figured out what a “successful” career looks like.
One of the more difficult aspects of being a military spouse, according to Smith and Liggett, is having to find a new community with every move. While they become lifelong friends with amazing people along the way, it can be difficult to not have an established village of coworkers, friends and loved ones they don’t have to part with every few years—especially when their spouse deploys, their children get sick, the family dog escapes or the car breaks down.
“My entire family lives in Georgia,” says Liggett, “so living in New York, Colorado, North Carolina and Tennessee with our military moves, we just had no one there. We must lean on our community. If I hadn’t been married into the military, I would have never left Georgia.” For HR leaders, setting up an Employee Resource Group for military spouses is one easy way to connect employees with similar circumstances to one another for support and advice, as well as to educate other team members about their unique situations.
Military spouses live in different parts of the United States and overseas. Through exploring other ways of life and living, they become more grounded by being able to do what they truly want as opposed to doing things because that’s how it’s always been done. Liggett has taught school in four different states and has been privileged to teach in different cultures, geographic areas and lifestyles. “I’ve taught in low poverty neighborhoods and in wealthy income neighborhoods and school districts,” she says. Getting to fully embrace different cultures and ways of life is a highlight for military spouses, who can then bring their understanding of different backgrounds, values and perspectives to the organization they work for.