Milspouse Employment: Making a Living Wage
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?