Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Opinion | On hiring military spouses like me, the U.S. government has work to do

Opinion | On hiring military spouses like me, the U.S. government has work to do

Melissa A. Sullivan is a military spouse and a press officer with the federal government.

Summer for most American families means hitting the beach (or the road), but for countless military families, it’s PCS — or permanent change of station — season.

“PCS-ing” is military jargon for packing up your life, saying goodbye to friends and relocating to an area hundreds of miles from your most recent home — and repeating this dozens of times throughout a military career.

On average, military families move every two to three years. Not only is this emotionally exhausting, but it also makes it difficult for military spouses like me to find or maintain employment.

High spousal unemployment is a problem as the military grapples with a recruiting and retention crisis 50 years into our all-volunteer service, and with a large-scale conflict potentially looming. It adds to the financial strain on military families and contributes to many service members’ decision to opt out and pursue more attractive civilian opportunities — which in turn affects the readiness of our fighting forces.

With rising inflation, many military families struggle to make ends meet without dual incomes. According to the latest Military Family Lifestyle Survey conducted by Blue Star Families, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the military community, 1 in 7 enlisted families had experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months.

In that same survey, 35 percent of military spouses reported being unemployed “but need or want employment.” Defense Department data show that the official rate has been around 21 percent for almost a decade.

Among the reasons for this high unemployment rate: employers are reluctant to hire someone guaranteed to move away in a couple of years; lack of licensing reciprocity for jobs in fields such as health care or education; and résumé gaps caused by periods of unemployment.

Fortunately, solutions are in the offing. In a groundbreaking announcement last month at Fort Liberty in North Carolina, President Biden signed an executive order with nearly 20 actions to enhance career stability and expand employment resources for the military community. Among other actions, it directs the federal government to develop a strategic plan to eliminate barriers to hiring and retaining military and veteran spouses, caregivers and survivors. It also creates standards for the Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas program, permitting certain federal employees to remotely work overseas. This policy is especially beneficial for military spouses who move to a foreign posting.

As a military spouse employed by the federal government, I find two measures of particular interest: increasing the number of federal job postings utilizing the Military Spouse Noncompetitive Appointing Authority, which prioritizes hiring military spouses for certain federal positions, and proposed legislation that would grant military spouses more flexibility to remotely work for the government.

With abundant federal positions typically available near major military installations domestically and abroad, it makes business sense for the federal government to hire more military spouses and make transferring duty stations easier for them.

Passing legislation to expand remote work is also imperative. Even though remote work has been shown to benefit employee morale, improve work-life balance and boost productivity, senior management across the government is largely resistant to expanding telework opportunities or designating roles as fully remote. Since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, I have been fully remote. My ability to continue working remotely is a significant factor in my deciding whether to remain with the government when my spouse and I relocate, and, consequently, in my spouse’s deciding whether to remain with the military. If the government cannot extend a remote opportunity and the peace of mind it offers, it might lead to my spouse choosing to separate from the service. We are not alone in this predicament.

Military spouses like me are agile, talented and diverse. We are highly educated and motivated to work. It’s time for the U.S. government to recognize and value such a robust resource — and avoid undermining the readiness of our fighting forces.

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