- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The difficulties military spouses face finding good-paying jobs are fast becoming not just a matter of individual concern but also a national security issue, one that is undermining the military’s ability to recruit and retain personnel.

That warning comes from a panel at the Brookings Institution on Monday that featured some high-level expertise: Holly Petraeus, the wife of former CIA director and retired four-star Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Mike Haynie, executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, said too many policy analysts fail to appreciate the scope of the problem or the way high unemployment rates among military spouses put stress on families and on the military services.

“They say, ‘That’s not security. That’s not relevant to what we do,’ ” Mr. Haynie said. “But it absolutely should be. If we don’t get this right, the cracks in the all-volunteer force model are going to become chasms. I think things will fall apart.”

According to a recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the unemployment rate among military spouses was 16% — more than four times the rate for the U.S. economy as a whole. Military spouses also earn almost 27% less in wage and salary income than their nonmilitary peers.



About a third of military spouses aren’t living in the same location as the service member to whom they are married. In most cases, money is the reason for the separation, Mr. Haynie said. Military parents are advising their children against pursuing a military career far more frequently today than even five years ago, he added.

“That should tell us something, and it should scare us,” he said.

A May 2018 study by the White House Council of Economic Advisers detailed many of the challenges facing military spouses in the marketplace. It said just 57% of military spouses are in the workforce, compared with 76% of the general working-age population. Employers are often reluctant to take on workers who face frequent and unpredictable transfers, and military spouses often find that their training or occupational licensing in one jurisdiction does not transfer to another.

“Military families make many sacrifices for American security and prosperity …,” the Council of Economic Advisers noted. “Frequent moves, unpredictable hours, rural base assignments, and deployments all take a toll on the labor market outcomes of military spouses.”

Spouses of U.S. military members stationed overseas “are particularly disadvantaged, as foreign hosts often do not grant spousal work visas,” the study said.

Underemployed

As she followed her husband of 46 years from post to post through his long military career, Mrs. Petraeus was forced to pick up whatever work she could find. At one point, Mrs. Petraeus, a summa cum laude graduate from Dickinson College, took an entry-level government job making slides for overhead projectors. Even when she managed to find work more in line with her background and education, Mrs. Petraeus was invariably asked to sign a “mobility agreement” signaling her willingness to move wherever her government job sent her.

“I didn’t feel I could sign that in good conscience,” she said. “At that point, I gave up my not-so-stellar government career and became a ‘stay at home’ mom.”

Although she stayed busy volunteering, Mrs. Petraeus remained out of the formal workforce for more than 20 years.

“I didn’t have a paid job again — let alone a career — until I was in my 50s,” said Mrs. Petraeus, who most recently worked as an assistant director for service members affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Improvements have been made since she was a young Army wife in the 1970s, Mrs. Petraeus said. Telecommuting is becoming more feasible for those who regularly have to relocate, and there is more public support for military families than there was in the immediate post-Vietnam era. But the picture remains problematic, analysts say. Although military pay has roughly kept up with inflation, big-ticket items such as homes and cars are often beyond the budgets of military families that rely on a single income to make ends meet.

The demands of military life can also make an applicant less attractive to a civilian employer.

“There are still employers who look at your resume with all the multiple moves and blank spaces and think, ‘Nope. Nope. Not worth it,’” Mrs. Petraeus said.

Basic military family cohesion can suffer, said Elizabeth O’Brien, a military spouse and senior director of the Hiring Our Heroes program for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. It’s not uncommon for military spouses to live apart because money is too tight, she said.

“We have to provide an opportunity for spouses who are carrying student debt,” said Ms. O’Brien, citing her own case. “We now have to live separately because I have to pay my student debt back. I don’t want to go into default.”

For many, a decision on whether to pursue a career in the military is no longer a matter for just one person.

“It’s a family decision. We recruit the service member, but we retain the family,” said Marcus Beauregard, director of the Defense Department’s state liaison office, citing a military adage.

“Taking care of military families is essential,” Mr. Beauregard said.

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