Military spouses share employment challenges during White House visit

Military spouses share employment challenges during White House visit
About the Author

Gina Harkins is MOAA's Senior Staff Writer. She can be reached at ginah@moaa.org. Follow her on Twitter at: @ginaaharkins.

An educator and a speech pathologist accompanied MOAA to the White House last week, where they briefed the president's team about challenges military spouses face when seeking or keeping quality employment. 

Kim Lopez and her family just completed their ninth permanent change of station (PCS). With every move comes a slew of new state certification requirements, says Lopez, an educator who's married to an Air Force colonel. Completing those requirements every two or so years can be time-consuming and expensive. 

“I'm always reinventing myself,” Lopez says. “Oftentimes after we PCS, I'm starting at a lower level because a lot of my time teaching in other states is not honored.”

Elizabeth Griffin's experiences have been similar. The speech pathologist, whose husband is an Army Special Forces officer, says she'd like to see more professional licenses transfer across state lines. Even though a push was made in recent years to make this possible, states still tend to have unique requirements for certain professions, which can make getting jobs in some fields difficult. 

The Trump administration invited Lopez, Griffin, and other military spouses to the West Wing Aug. 3 to hear about their employment challenges. Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump's daughter and senior advisor, hosted the event. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and Kellyanne Conway, the president's counselor, also attended. 

Military families say they've been waiting to see this administration take steps to improve spouse employment after the Obama-era Joining Forces initiative was removed from the White House website soon after Trump took office. Joining Forces was created in 2011 by former first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden to help servicemembers, veterans, and their families succeed. One effort focused on curbing military spouse unemployment - and under-employment - by encouraging governors to allow professional licenses to be used across state lines and corporations to hire military spouses.  

This meeting was the first sign the Trump administration also is interested in getting more military spouses employed.

“I was very pleased at the engagement we got from Ivanka Trump,” says Brooke Goldberg, MOAA's director of Military Family Issues Policy and Spouse Programs. “The setting was intimate, and there was a willingness to hear solutions from the military spouses in attendance.” 

In 2014, MOAA teamed with Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families to study military spouse employment. The study found 90 percent of military spouses were underemployed and that military spouses earn nearly 40 percent less than their civilian counterparts. 

Griffin and Lopez say they were thrilled White House officials wanted to learn more about these issues. Both are familiar with the issue of underemployment, having taken jobs below their skillsets in order to land a job after they PCS. Because of their frequent moves, military spouses often are denied the opportunity to move into positions of leadership despite years of experience in their fields. While Griffin and Lopez are grateful for the chance to work at all, since many others are unemployed, they see opportunity for improvement.

“We're not asking for preferential treatment,” Lopez says. “We simply want to have a level playing field.”

In addition to making it easier to use other states' professional licenses, Griffin says she'd like to see the federal government offer tax credits to organizations that hire military spouses and flexible work arrangements, when appropriate. For her job as a speech pathologist, face-to-face interaction is important. But she knows other military spouses working in areas like marketing or public relations who've been successful while teleworking.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue, she says, so she recognizes there's no easy fix. But she urges politicians who have the ability to work on improving military spouse employment not to view it as a partisan issue, but instead one they all can stand behind. 

Military spouse employment is a national security issue, Eric Eversole, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and president of Hiring Our Heroes, wrote in a recent opinion piece for Military Times. Lopez agrees, adding that military spouse un- or underemployment affects retention.

“If we're unhappy, our spouses are unhappy. And many of them are making decisions about whether to stay in the military because of it,” Lopez says. “It's impeding our family life and our financial life so much that we are making choices to leave the military because of it, and we don't want to have to do that. “We want to find solutions.” 

 

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