Imagine completing your master’s degree and landing a job in the Army acquisition career field you have worked so hard for. Then, finding the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, who just happens to be active-duty military. As a current DOD civilian in contracting, which the Army needs all over the world, surely these skills are transferable without having to leave the career field? Well, as Jessica Raulerson discovered, that is not quite how it works once you become a military spouse.
It is career conundrums like this that DOD has the ability to better bridge if it is willing. Between 22 and 35 percent of military spouses across all branches of service face unemployment—that is four to six times the national average, as of 2022, and the numbers have been this way for the last several years.
NEW EMPLOYMENT RESOURCE
In a modest effort to ease the employment burden through more transparent and accurate information sharing, a new resource guide for military spouses and veterans, “Navigating Civilian Employment,” was recently released to ensure the most up-to-date information on laws, policies and programs are consistently available in a living document to help better understand the federal hiring process. The guide was created in response to a 2020 survey of military spouses currently employed as Army civilians, conducted by the Office of the Assistant G-1, Civilian Personnel. Findings from the survey illustrated a need to increase employment information sharing and improve the consistency and ease of access to employment information. The guide includes illustrated example hiring paths for different scenarios and experience, descriptions of job classifications, hiring requirements and forms.
Raulerson, who began her career as a contract specialist at the Missile Defense Agency before becoming an active-duty spouse—also referred to as a dependent—agrees that more information on the hiring process is needed for military spouses.
The consistently high unemployment rate among military spouses is not from a lack of willingness to work, education or know-how. These numbers are the result of circumstances placed upon families in consequence to an outdated view of military service as a family unit, where only one member is actually paid to serve.
In a 2021 study, the Government Accountability Office estimated a 25 percent unemployment rate for spouses in credentialed fields. Fortunately, a new law announced this January has come to fruition requiring states to recognize professional licenses from other states (except for law licenses) if a move was due to military orders. Still, 43 percent of active-duty families say spouse employment is their biggest stressor. These circumstances can continue after service members transition to civilians as well. According to USAJOBS, DOD employs 950,000 civilians serving in critical positions worldwide, and states, “DOD civilians are not active-duty military, but still serve as an integral part of the Army team to support the defense of our nation.” Families of DOD civilians overseas especially face the same unemployment issues as active-duty spouses.
As Air Force spouse and author of “Silent Sacrifice on the Homefront,” Michelle Still Mehta, Ph.D., wrote in a 2019 op-ed: “It is time for DOD to do more than provide window dressing in support of military spouses. Instead, it is time to aggressively attack and eliminate this problem, just like an enemy on the battlefield.”
A CHECKED BOX
The 2020 survey outreach in the Army family web portal that ultimately resulted in this hiring guide prompted military spouse civilian employees to “Help be a ‘change agent!’ ” and “improve current employment processes and develop new initiatives to improve upon spouse employment.”
While this guide, developed by Army experts in human resources and Soldier and Family Readiness, is designed to help information become more accessible, it doesn’t aid or change the policies and infrastructural problems at the root of many unemployed spouses—issues like mobility that force spouses to leave their jobs, lack of child care availability on-post; spouse hiring preference job classification (temporary or excepted service vs. competitive service) that can end up blocking spouses from jobs and career growth after the hired box is checked. Spouse preference is rarely used for higher level positions, and volunteer positions are often created on post to fill service gaps, contributing to 30 to 50 percent underemployment rates. A spouse’s employment can also be directly tied to the military members employment—meaning a spouse can lose their job upon the military member’s decision to separate from active or civilian service—no matter how good of an employee they are.
Even as a DOD civilian, Raulerson learned the hurdles firsthand and experienced how maintaining employment in your career field after becoming a military spouse is no small feat. “When we married, I moved overseas with him to South Korea,” Raulerson said, adding that at the time she only had 90 days leave without pay status and was up against the three-year consecutive employment rule for credible federal service, a rule that the Office of Personnel Management has since eliminated. (The three-year rule required employees to serve three consecutive years, where a break in service more than 30 days meant essentially starting over.) “There were very few civilian positions available, but with military spouse preference I was able to gain employment with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an engineering support assistant. This required me to pause my professional dreams of having a successful contracting career, but it was very important to me to keep that door open by continuing my federal employment,” she said.
“In the middle of our tour in South Korea, I applied for a contract specialist position but was not referred despite having a master’s in acquisitions and contracting, being a prior [contracting series] 1102 and having earned my DAWIA Level II in contracting [now referred to as DOD contracting professional], all in addition to submitting what I thought was the correct package of documents.”
When Raulerson returned to the U.S., she and her husband were stationed at Fort Irwin, California, where she said employment options were even more limited. So, she did what employment-seeking spouses are advised to do and signed up with Civilian Personnel Advisory Center to be placed into the military spouse preference Priority Placement Program. But she learned only after meeting with the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center director that the human resources assistant had signed her up under positions and grade levels that did not exist at Fort Irwin.
“I spent an entire year applying to jobs without one referral,” Raulerson said. Fortunately, leadership at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Korea was kind enough to extend her leave without pay status since their duty station was remote and far from civilization, and she wasn’t able to gain employment in the first year. According to the G-1 resource guide, if a military spouse is still on LWOP, she has more options to apply for jobs as a current civilian in addition to jobs marked open to spouses.
Eventually, she did find a position—a program analyst at Headquarters, National Training Center, in the G-8 Manpower Office supporting travel and the Mass Transportation Benefit Program—but this was still not the contracting position that she was hoping for, nor did she ever see a position in the field open up.
It wasn’t until moving to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after a four-year gap, that she finally found an opening into the contracting career field again, with U.S. Army Mission and Installation Contracting Command.
“Contracting at Fort Leavenworth was much different from contracting at MDA, but I was happy to learn something new,” she said. “MICC has a wonderful military spouse transfer program that I am more than grateful for. I was able to apply for contracting positions at our next duty station and be transferred to where I am now.”
Raulerson, now a contract specialist with MICC at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, explained how being able to transfer provided her with “built-in” rotations that broadened her skills. At MDA she was working on major weapons systems, at Fort Leavenworth she purchased information technology supplies and services, and at Fort Campbell she is now perfecting her skills in construction contracting.
Expanding transfer programs to both civilian and military spouses has proven successful in retaining a trained and capable workforce. In 2020, Army Materiel Command successfully renamed and expanded its former child care-employee-centric Nonappropriated Fund Civilian Employment Assignment Tool to cover 90 percent of all NAF-employed spouses, although it still excludes higher career level and supervisor positions. The number of Army NAF employees eligible for the program increased from 7,000 to 22,000.
WHERE’S THE REMOTE?
In addition to expanding transfer programs, remote job opportunities are another realistic solution DOD has already used while sustaining support of mission requirements. Continuing and expanding DOD remote positions, to spouses and to the public, that have been remote since the COVID-19 pandemic would allow family members to apply and keep their jobs when it is time to move within the U.S. and to approved overseas locations. Currently, domestic employee teleworking overseas agreements are rare, citing cost and security as factors. However, staying remote could cost-effectively assist the military in filling gaps for recruitment shortcomings. The Army fell short on 2022 recruitment goals by 25 percent, according to an October CNBC article.
The workforce demonstrated remote capabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced government and industry offices to find ways to continue their missions 100 percent digitally or in hybrid formats. DOD continued to meet mission requirements and provided new and improved ways of doing business, for example, remote training capabilities for foreign military sales programs (see “Perseverance is Key” on AL&T News). Going remote also increased employee productivity, engagement and overall civilian workforce satisfaction with leadership.
The Pentagon’s inspector general said that 88 percent of respondents surveyed on teleworking practices reported that their productivity increased while working from home or was as productive as they were in the office. So remote capabilities are not only possible, but the way of the future force if DOD is willing to accept it.
A memorandum from the Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen H. Hicks said, “Even before the pandemic, DOD policy has been for telework to be actively promoted and authorized for the maximum number of positions to the extent that mission readiness is not jeopardized. … Continuation of flexibilities used during the COVID-19 pandemic increases the DOD’s efficiency and effectiveness, as well as allows the Department to better attract and retain those with the necessary skills and abilities needed to accomplish current and future missions.”
Yet, despite these lessons learned and statements from leadership, many DOD offices (including the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center) have chosen to mandate that all Army civilians, no matter their role and ability to continue the mission fully remote, return physically to the office, whereby even one day per week effectively eliminates those roles to mobile military and civilian spouses and prolongs position vacancies.
While the Army remains inconsistent with any real change to military family employment issues, it doesn’t stop hard-working spouses like Raulerson from staying positive and continuing to support our warfighters in any way she can.
“I have learned that employment is not always guaranteed at the next duty station,” Raulerson said, “but I am hopeful that wherever my spouse receives PCS [permanent change of station] orders to next, I am able to continue reaching for my own professional career goals in contracting by gaining new skills, while also sharing my abilities with my new team.”
Editor's note: Article originally appeared at https://asc.army.mil/web/news-the-military-spouse-dilemma/.
For more information, veterans and family members seeking employment in the U.S. or overseas can reach out to their local employment readiness specialist at the Army Community Service office on-post for additional in-person guidance and resume assistance. To view the Army civilian and veteran employment resource guide, go to: https://api.army.mil/e2/c/downloads/2022/09/29/bd7cb845/navigating-civilian-employment-dtd-21sep2022.pdf.
Holly DeCarlo-White provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as a writer and editor for Army AL&T magazine for SAIC. Previously, she was a public affairs specialist at U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Germany. She holds a B.S. in merchandising management from the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York and has more than a decade of communications and operations experience in the private sector.
Contributor: Ellen Summey, Communications Principal, APR+M, PMP, supporting U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center, and SAIC.