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Milspouse Employment: Making a Living Wage

April 6, 2009

Since our most recent PCS, I’ve come face to face with the employment issues surrounding milspouses. It’s an ongoing problem that I think doesn’t get enough attention, so I’d like to start a conversation. Over the next week, I’ll post four or five (the latter if conversation sparks the need for a separate post) parts in this series of milspouse employment.

For this post, I’d like to talk about job prospects and logistics for a milspouse. I know it’s lame, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll generalize with pronouns and default to the more common gender of milspouses (though I’m curious to hear from the guys whether these problems are as pervasive for you as they are for us).

Finding a job has become a primary concern for me lately because of our recent PCS. I haven’t worked in my industry in seven years because of a job I had to take when I followed my hubs to Bahrain. When we returned to the States, I looked for another job, but my prospects were very limited because of my prior job, so I opted to stay home with my sprogs. We moved again two years ago, and once again, I looked for employment, to no avail.

New PCS, new opportunities. Right? Not so fast.

The 2005 Rand Corporation’s “Working Around the Military: Challenges of Military Spouse Employment” report states:

The RAND Corporation finds that [military spouses] are less likely to be employed, are more likely to be seeking work, and earn less than comparable civilian spouses.

It sounds discouraging. Though most military spouses do have outside employment, what cost do they pay? I had thought perhaps the main barriers keeping them from their ideal employment would be childcare issues, the effects of a resume listing five employers in ten years, the instability that comes with shifting deployment (and underway) schedules and sudden changes in orders, etc. You know, the things you expect.

What about the unexpected?

Some spouses cited an employer bias against or stigmatization of military spouses, often driven by the employer’s concern that the spouse will be forced to leave abruptly. As with frequent moves and service member absence, this perceived cause is uniquely military.

I encountered this twice. First, when we lived in Pensacola, and an interview that was going very well suddenly ended after I mentioned my husband was at flight school. It happened again when we moved to San Diego. I got my certification as a bartender and started scouting for a job. Nobody had told me about the milspouse bias yet, but after the third interview, I began to suspect what was happening. Interviewer would ask me what brought me to San Diego, I would tell him the truth, the interview would end soon after, and I would not land the job. I had the highest test score in my class at bartending school. I positively whipped butt in the interviews. I had no idea that my husband’s career could be used against me, but it was a common enough practice in San Diego that a few other wives from the ship’s wardroom knew exactly what the problem was. They counseled me against mentioning the Navy or even my husband during the interviews and told me to expect them to suspect the truth anyway from my job history.

What about pay? The report hits on that problem, as well:

Common explanations for their different employment outcomes are that military spouses tend to be younger, which influences their earnings and employability; that they may choose not to work; or that there may be aspects of the military lifestyle that preclude their employment or affect the types of jobs they accept (and thus their earnings).

Milspouses earn less than their civilian counterparts. In the long version of the report, RAND gives a ton of formulas and approaches the equivalence of qualifications and pay from seemingly every direction. No matter the parameters, they find that something about the military lifestyle results in lower pay for equivalent experience.

I’d like to say that RAND has it right, that it’s all about the transient lifestyle, the lack of childcare options, the problems that come with marriage to a deploying warrior. But I’ve recently come across one more reason we don’t make as much.

When I visited the Fleet and Family Service Center, I spoke to one of the employment assistance folks. He was great, as the FFSC folks usually are, and I got tons of valuable information from him. But the most important comment in our conversation? He said, “Don’t be surprised when they find out you’re a spouse. They’ll pull out the other wage table, the one they use because they know they can pay you pennies and get away with it.”

Apparently, we spouses are so desperate for work, we’ll take any low-wage position that’s offered to us. Employers know this, and they use it against us. We’re paid on a different wage scale than regular civilians.

Does this smack of discrimination to you? It should, and yet it’s legal. Legal discrimination. RAND points out (as quoted above) that the employability of some spouses is affected because the potential employer believes she’ll leave with her husband’s PCS. Employers can’t ask a woman about her procreative plans in order to determine whether she’ll stick around long enough before leaving to have children. Why are employers allowed to make a similar discrimination against us?

In future posts, we’ll discuss specific job opportunities, effects on career growth, options, and action. For today, sound off about your education, the jobs you’ve managed, and how you think the military has affected your job options and your wage or salary. How has the military affected you in terms of the jobs you can land and how well you’re compensated?

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

23 Comments leave one →
  1. LAW permalink
    April 6, 2009 10:21 am

    I’m amazed that this is legal! You can’t ask about children, you can’t ask about religion, but you can discriminate because of what a person’s spouse does? Bizarre. I’m tempted to contact the EEOC.


  2. April 6, 2009 12:37 pm

    Thank you for posting this… I will be diving into the world of the job seeking MilSpouse next year and it will be good to be so fully armed! Great post!

    And LAW, I’d love to hear what the EEOC has to say about this!

    • April 6, 2009 6:05 pm

      Tucker Im in the same position as you, this hasn’t affected me yet, but it will next January. Im really nervous about moving, and Ive been told not to expect much more than $10 an hour (if that!). And thats sad.

  3. April 6, 2009 1:13 pm

    I am very lucky to have an employer who was willing to try a telecommuting arrangement. It’s worked out well for both parties for three-plus years.

    However, it’s pretty much put me at a dead end as far as advancement. And there are times that I’ve been fed up enough to quit, except that I know I won’t be able to find a comparably flexible, decent-paying job as long as I’m a camp follower. So I do feel trapped on occasion, even though I mostly enjoy my work.

    This is a great topic, and I’m looking forward to the continuing discussion!

  4. slightlysaltyspouse permalink
    April 6, 2009 2:16 pm

    Thanks for putting some spotlight on this. It’s a huge issue and I think it’s something worthy of being included in the civil rights laws regarding discrimination. We are discriminated against merely by our military association and it’s completely unfair. I don’t care that I signed up to move around the country with my husband, I still deserve the right to pursue a job or career at the end of the day. I faced an uphill battle when we moved to San Diego back in 2002. I was a newly minted librarian fresh from grad school and was practically unemployable as one. I lucked out and found a year long temporary librarian job at a local university so at least I had that, but when the year was up, there was nothing. Part of that was just the job market too b/c I was newer to the field and most positions wanted over 5 years experience. But in the interim, I had tried finding work as a legal secretary since I had done that for 5 years before becoming a librarian. And sure enough, I hit the walls you spoke of as soon as the questions started flying about moving to San Diego and all that. I didn’t even mention Obi-Wan but I’m sure it was plainly obvious. I found myself practically unmarketable for anything that paid more than minimum wage and it was really disheartening to me that I had worked my butt off for so long and had such a hard time getting a job. I didn’t spend 10 years in school between bachelors degrees and a master’s degree to sit at home and do nothing.

    I think something substantial does need to be done to address this. Just because we are milspouses doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be hireable. At the end of the day, if we are qualified for the jobs, we should be hired. Okay, enough of that long comment rant. 🙂

  5. The Army Wife permalink
    April 6, 2009 3:34 pm

    I met my now-husband months after I graduated from grad school. My dreams of working in some big marketing company quickly died, as I moved out here to land of the Army and found that a) there were no jobs, and b) the jobs that were there wouldn’t hire me because I was so completely overqualified. It’s a very frustrating place to be in.

    After two long years of being here, and a couple of crappy job, I finally found something that I love. Still overqualified, but we’re all MilSpouses so my boss understands the grind.

    This is a great topic, once that definitely needed to be addressed. Thanks for posting this. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

  6. snarkynavywife permalink*
    April 6, 2009 4:13 pm

    How many of us have had to “settle” for a job outside our field of expertise/experience because of the military?

    • April 6, 2009 4:22 pm

      I haven’t had to yet- but near as I can tell I WILL have to do this when Swiss returns home and we officially move to post. Either that or I will have to go back to school (groan) to get another more marketable degree with more available job options. And lets not even get into the fact that we will only be there for 8-10 months before another move… who the heck is going to hire me to do ANYTHING? So then I have the glaring year of unemployment… this is so a no-win situation!

    • The Army Wife permalink
      April 6, 2009 5:39 pm

      I had to in the beginning. It was considered “marketing” but basically I was a glorified secretary to my jackass boss (who hates military people, by the way). Luckily I found something here that I consider in my field, but it took me two years to find it. Lord help me if we ever have to PCS anywhere smaller than where I am now.

  7. April 6, 2009 4:39 pm

    So… the EEOC won’t talk to us about this – because it isn’t job discrimination due to age, disability, race etc… so I called the general federal number… she told me to try the Dept of Labor. So I discussed it with a nice guy there. He said this was a new one for him and for the people in his section – ANYWAY they suggested talking to the Veterans Employment and Training Services of the US Department of Labor in California. They have offices all over the state.

    The bigger question – since we aren’t a “protected” group – what can we do about such blatant discrimination???


    • April 6, 2009 5:52 pm

      And how can we become a protected group? Discrimination is discrimination, am I right (not to put this on par with women’s suffrage or Civil rights, etc- just to be clear)?

  8. April 6, 2009 6:19 pm

    this makes me feel like less of a failure for not being able to find work since June of 2008. This is criminal.

  9. Megan permalink
    April 6, 2009 6:28 pm

    This is a great post and something I’m constantly worried about. We’re in our first contract and I was lucky enough to land an awesome job in my field.. I’m worried though of future moves and never having another great job due to all the circumstances listed above.

  10. April 6, 2009 8:06 pm

    I had trouble finding a job before I met my husband, and now him being in the Army’s going to make it tougher? Thanks for the advance warning!

  11. April 6, 2009 11:36 pm

    We’ve talked about this a bit, but one concrete thing could be to expand the CAA even further to include training in entrepreneurship so that PCSing milspouses could take their own businesses with them.

    I can’t say that the military has affected my career at all. But I do know full well what it’s like to lose a career because of a move and man, it was devastating.

  12. Susan permalink
    April 9, 2009 5:13 am

    FFSCs have told me:
    Employers will be happy you are a spouse. You won’t expect benefits since you have military benefits.

    Your husband’s enlisted? How do you have a master’s degree?

    You are far too qualified for anything any employer here will offer an enlisted wife.

    Well it’s good you don’t have children. This way you can work more and fill in for people with children.

    From business people now that husband is retired:
    Why do you want to work since your husband is retired? He’s getting retiree pay and benefits.

  13. April 15, 2009 1:47 am

    As for the Federal Government (Dept of Army at least) Managers aren’t permitted to ask anyone if and when their spouse is set to PCS, ETS etc.

    For private sector companies its not hard to see where the jobs are located and figure it out but they really shouldn’t be asking either. If a company did ask I wouldn’t want to work for them anyways – they might as well be asking me if I’m pregnant as far as I am concerned.


  1. Military Spouse Employment Struggles « My Life As An Army Wife
  2. Alternative Army Wife’s Blog
  3. Milspouse Employment: Portable Jobs (pt2) «
  4. Milspouse Employment: Career Growth (pt3) «
  5. Milspouse Employment: Having it All (pt 4) «
  6. Milspouse Employment: What to Do (pt 5) «

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