- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2018

Christina Thomas says she is used to being asked the same questions over and over in each job interview — questions that are usually a sign she won’t be getting a call back.

” ‘What do you mean you’re a military spouse? Does that mean you’re going to leave me in a year?’ ” the 35-year-old Texas native recited the dreaded queries in an interview last week, recounting her numerous attempts to find work while following her husband, Army Maj. and West Point instructor Brandon Thomas, to military assignments stretching from Georgia to Germany.

At each stop along the way, Mrs. Thomas — who holds a master’s degree and has worked as a paralegal — said she struggled to find a steady job.

The story is all too common for military spouses and one that major companies such as Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft and others say they are stepping up to help change.

According to the Pentagon’s figures, the husbands and wives of military service members face a whopping 26 percent unemployment rate and a 25 percent wage gap compared with their civilian counterparts. The main reason, military and business leaders say, is how often many military families relocate, giving companies pause as they fear — often rightfully — that the employee will be gone within a year or two.

The Defense Department also said the issue has a national security component, as the high spouse unemployment rate “compromises the quality of life of military families and the readiness of the military force.” The barriers to employment make it harder to recruit and can be especially onerous for spouses who work as teachers or in other fields that require specific licenses or certifications at the state level.

Beyond the stark jobless figures, many more military spouses are underemployed, taking positions far below their skill and education levels.

After her husband landed his teaching position at West Point, Mrs. Thomas said, she signed up for a temporary agency that ultimately placed her as an account manager for a glass-blowing company.

“I have a master’s degree in paralegal work. Data entry and answering phones is not what I anticipated doing when I was in my mid-30s,” she said. “But it’s what I needed to do to get myself out of the house and help support my family.”

Changing the dynamic

To change the dynamic, top U.S. businesses have announced an initiative that commits them to hiring thousands of military spouses over the next three years. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation last week announced a partnership with Starbucks on the “Hiring 100,000 Military Spouses” campaign, which encourages hiring of husbands and wives of service members.

Capital One, Prudential Financial, Blackstone, Amazon, Microsoft and other major global companies also are founding members of the coalition, the foundation said.

“Starbucks has hired more than 17,000 veterans and military spouses in the last five years. They make us a better company with their teamwork, experience and commitment to the job,” said Virginia Tenpenny, vice president of global social impact at the ubiquitous coffee giant.

“Yet nationally, military spouses still face extra barriers to employment and career development,” she said. “As a business community, we should seize the opportunity to integrate military spouses into the workforce or risk missing out on their skills and experience.”

For military spouses seeking jobs in licensed professions, the Labor Department has a special program that gives applicants specific information on each state’s conditions and requirements to obtain licenses or credentials to work in their fields. Spouses can click on a map to find out whether a given state has adopted licensing rights for military spouses, according to MilitaryTimes.com.

The defense authorization bill now working its way through Congress also contains provisions addressing the specific problem of military spouses having trouble finding work in a life of multiple relocations and deployments.

The Senate approved a provision that gives preferential treatment to military spouses at federal agencies, financial aid for training and credential applications in a new state, and allows spouses for the first time to participate in counseling and planning courses for military personnel when they prepare to leave active duty.

“Families are the backbone of the military,” Sen. David Perdue, Georgia Republican, said after the Senate adopted the amendment last month. “That’s why we took steps in the defense bill to help provide employment opportunities for military spouses by expediting the interview process, increasing the education potential and encouraging entrepreneurship.”

The issue has garnered attention across the public and private sectors. In May, President Trump signed an executive order directing the government to more actively recruit military spouses for open positions.

“America owes a debt of gratitude to our military spouses. We can never repay you for all that you do. We know what you do, and your spouse knows what you do. We can never repay you for that, but we can and we will give you the opportunities you deserve,” the president said at an event announcing the order. “Today, we take one of many important actions to ensure that you are free to pursue your careers, support your families and continue serving this nation that we all love so much.”

The Defense Department already operates the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, which it says has placed more than 120,000 military spouses in jobs with more than 320 companies across the country. The initiative was launched in 2011.

Despite all the official and corporate support, Mrs. Thomas and other spouses say, they continued to run into roadblock after roadblock in looking for employment.

In Mrs. Thomas’ case, her husband is preparing to pursue a medical retirement from the Army — a decision that will finally allow her to pursue her own career goals.

“He was very honest about his feelings, how grateful he was that I’ve given up everything, my career path, to get up and follow him all around the world,” she said.

He said that “it would be my turn to find a career,” she added. “He would let me take the front seat and he would ride shotgun on this because he felt that would be fair after everything we’ve endured the last seven years.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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