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Recession on the homefront: Military spouse unemployment and underemployment

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Oct 11, 2018

Many Americans are unaware of the financial challenges facing military families today. Fifty years ago, in part due to the draft, most Americans understood the realities of the military’s demands. But now, the “military-civilian divide” continues to grow as the average American’s involvement with the military is nothing more than intermittent cable news stories. Understandably, most Americans have no idea that military families are struggling to achieve the modern American dream.

Military spouse unemployment and underemployment present a serious problem for working, middle-class families. Currently, the military spouse unemployment rate stands at a staggering 16 percent — roughly four times the national average — and the underemployment rate for military spouses is 70 percent. Most Americans do not recognize that this issue represents an increasing risk to the readiness, retention, and recruiting of our nation’s all-volunteer military force.

Like many middle-class American families, military families often need two incomes to achieve financial security. According to the 2017 study Military Spouses in the Workplace, 44 percent of military spouses state they are living paycheck-to-paycheck or are struggling financially. Unfortunately, due to the unique demands of military life — such as deployments, training exercises, and inordinate moves with little or no advance notice — spouse employment of any kind is incredibly difficult to achieve.

The challenges presented by frequent relocations are especially severe, as 67 percent of surveyed military spouses had to quit or change jobs when their family moved due to a military assignment. Once they relocated, 41 percent of those searching for employment took more than three months to find work.

The financial impact of unemployment and underemployment paints a grimmer picture for military spouses and their families. According to a 2018study conducted by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, military spouses earn 26.8 percent less in wage and salary income than their non-military spouse peers. In the American workforce, this amounts to an annual $12,374 “penalty” for military spouses. This penalty becomes even more alarming when examining the tremendous skills and qualifications represented in the military spouse talent pool.

Not only are military spouses masters of adaptability, ingenuity, and perseverance, they are also better-educated, on average, than most working Americans. Forty-nine percent of military spouses possess undergraduate or graduate degrees. Yet, many military spouses find that their education and training go underutilized. Two-thirds of employed military spouses reported that they found themselves in positions that require fewer skills or responsibilities than previously held positions. As Dr. Adam Jones, Regional Economist at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, stated during our 2017 Military Spouse Employment Summit, “There are four million job openings in the U.S. right now. We aren’t in recession, but military spouses live in recession.”

The decisions families make to join, stay, or leave the all-volunteer military could negatively impact our national security for years to come.

Our nation has confronted similar issues before. In 2011, our veterans faced crisis-level unemployment rates. Through efforts to connect veterans with meaningful employment opportunities, Hiring Our Heroes proudly partnered with private-sector employers to reduce that rate from over 12 percent in 2011 to less than 4 percent in 2018. Military spouses deserve no less than the country’s full commitment to forcefully changing the employment climate.

Thanks to the leadership of many innovative companies, military spouse unemployment has improved considerably over the past three years — down from 23 percent in 2015 to 16 percent in 2017. However, the risk to military readiness, retention, and recruiting continues to increase.

The 2017 Military Spouses in the Workplace study found that 81 percent of surveyed military service members and their spouses had discussed leaving the military due to spouse employment concerns. The decisions families make to join, stay, or leave the all-volunteer military could negatively impact our national security for years to come. In an era of persistent conflict, our country cannot afford such threats to our military readiness.

Just over 100 days ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative — along with a national coalition led by Starbucks and 16 founding partners, including the Biden Foundation — announced the launch of the Hiring 100,000 Military Spouses campaign, a three-year call-to-action for companies and businesses across America to make a collective commitment to hire 100,000 military spouses. The launch of this ambitious campaign will spark businesses to collectively recognize the unparalleled leadership skills and work ethic military spouses bring to the workplace. After all, matching military spouses with good-paying jobs is not just an economic concern, it is a national security imperative as well.

Elizabeth O’Brien is the senior director of the Military Spouse Program at Hiring Our Heroes. In her role, O’Brien advocates for meaningful employment opportunities for the more than 1 million members of the military spouse community. To help spread the word or learn how you can make a commitment, go to HiringOurHeroes.org/Hiring100k for more information.