Military spouse employment is a hot topic in the UK and the USA with the issues and concerns taken seriously by leaders. Military spouses in both countries have access to a number of government and non-government programs and initiatives to overcome the challenges associated with relocation and the frequent and lengthy absences from home of their serving member that impact spouse employment. Research in the US has found that military spouses are disadvantaged with respect to employment in comparison to their civilian counterparts (1) and spouse employment has been identified as one of the two most important issues of concern for military families (2). Whilst we don’t have the same data available to us in Australia, the data that we do have (including anecdotal evidence) indicates that there is a lot of discontent amongst spouses of Australian Defence Force personnel when it comes to employment and careers. However, unlike the USA and the UK there is very little support for assistance for military spouse employment here in Australia despite one survey reporting that around 80% of spouses consider their career has been affected by that of their serving member spouse (3). Surprisingly there is also very little literature on the topic.
Evidence from Australia and overseas indicates that some of the specific career and employment challenges faced by military spouses are:
- Being unable to maintain periods of uninterrupted employment (more than half of ADF spouses have reported changing jobs due to posting)
- Difficulty in maintaining seniority and pursuing upward career movement
- Differing licensing and registration requirements across states and countries which can legally and financially prohibit or delay employment
- Geographic location that impacts the amount and type of work available (remote and overseas postings can be particularly problematic
- The requirements of relocation logistics on families (which largely fall on the spouse)
- Difficulties in finding work due to gaps of paid employment on resumes
- Acquiring cumulative workplace benefits such as maternity leave, long service leave and superannuation
- Finding suitable childcare arrangements in a new location in an adequate time frame
- Financial instability
- Underemployment (either time-related i.e insufficient hours or inadequate employment i.e insufficient use of skills and/or inadequate income)
- Employer bias
This last point refers to the perceived reluctance of some employers to hire military spouses due to concerns that they won’t remain in the job long enough and/or can’t give the desired commitment to the job.
In today’s labour market it is more important than ever that individuals have the skills and knowledge they need to survive and thrive in it and thus career development strategies are essential. As one career expert says
“those with career management skills are more likely to choose education, training, and employment that meets their own unique needs” and are less likely to be underemployed for long periods.” (4)
Given the importance of career development strategies for all Australians it is particularly important for those such as military families who face additional, specific challenges. Defence currently provide limited assistance via the Partner Education and Employment Program administered by the Defence Community Organisation but this is not available to all spouses due to strict eligibility requirements, limitations on what is covered and by availability of funds.
There are obvious benefits of employment to individuals and their families but the benefits of supporting the careers of military spouses goes far beyond that.
In terms of individuals and families, financial benefits are a primary concern. In the US it is acknowledged that many military families are wanting and needing to be dual-income families (5) and presumably the same can be said for Australian military families. However the additional social and wellbeing benefits of employment should not be underestimated. One study concluded that Australian military spouses who were employed experienced better health, better quality relationships and higher levels of psychological well being than those who were unemployed (6). This is supported by evidence from overseas. If supporting military spouse employment efforts can assist spouses find satisfactory employment in the context of military life and this in turn can lead to better financial status, health and wellbeing of both the individual spouse and the family unit then there is clear moral justification for doing so.
Career management assistance for spouses would also help ADF families prepare for the future possible separation from the ADF particularly when that separation is unplanned such as the case of involuntary medical discharges. Providing career assistance to ADF spouses in order to help them secure satisfying employment can help achieve the goal of a successful transition of the serving Member and help lessen the financial stress of separation from the ADF. The financial impact of separation from the ADF cannot be underestimated. Employment in the ADF represents financial and job security and military families may take for granted the steady, predictable pay (7) and subsidized housing. Due to the challenges outlined above many ADF families are single income or heavily reliant on the income of the serving member and thus separation from the ADF presents a significant financial consideration and challenge one which can be eased by financial readiness preparation. Providing spouse career and employment assistance from the outset can help families better prepare for separation from the military.
A healthy and content military family unit also benefits the ADF organization. As current and future generations of military spouses continue to want, need and expect satisfying career lives the issue of spouse employment will be an increasingly important consideration for people deciding on whether to join and remain with the ADF. The financial, health, satisfaction and wellbeing of satisfactory spouse employment have the potential to contribute positively to the attractiveness of Defence as an employer and to satisfaction with military life. In the US research has shown that the “most satisfied military families are those with an employed spouse” (8). The ADF doesn’t just need attract and retain people they need to attract and retain the RIGHT people. Making the ADF an attractive employment option for members with spouses and families can mean a larger, more diverse pool of talent from which Defence can choose its leaders (9). In terms of capability it stands to reason that serving members with satisfying personal lives are more likely to positively contribute to high morale, operations readiness and capability.
But the benefits of assisting ADF spouse employment would reach beyond that of the family and the ADF. Career assistance for military spouses has the potential to increase Australia’s pool of qualified, skilled workers thereby providing benefits to employers and the potential to increase Australia’s productivity. In 2014 the Reserve Bank reported that labor force participation in Australia had hit an 8 year low and the working age population was declining at a time when local companies are competing with global employers for talent. As such it has been claimed that looking ahead Australia’s problem will be a lack of workers not a lack of jobs (10). The ADF spouse population is made up almost entirely of those of working age. Even accounting for those who choose not work because of family reasons (and not forced to make that decision due to lack of childcare) if ADF spouses are, as the evidence suggests, underemployed, unemployed or discouraged workers not fully participating in the labour force then they are a percentage of the labour market whose potential is not being taken full advantage of. In addition, due to the very nature of their unique lifestyle and experiences military spouses often have the transferable skills and personal attributes that employers are looking for making them an attractive proposition for employers. Frequent relocations, experience living overseas, extended and frequent periods of solo parenting can result in ADF spouses developing skills and attributes such as organizational skills, resilience, flexibility, adaptability, problem-solving skills, cultural awareness, networking and communication skills, leadership skills and multi-tasking abilities. In both the US and the UK military spouses have been touted as assets for employers. Therefore the return on investment outlook for supporting military spouse employment is positive. Recently the economic impact of unemployment amongst the US military spouse population was estimated to cost the US economy up to $1 billion per year (11). Whilst our military population is nowhere near the size of the US’s these figures illustrate a financial cost to the economy of military spouse unemployment.
Military spouse unemployment is also a gender issue given that the majority of the ADF workforce is male and in opposite-sex relationships. Research shows that closing the gap between male and female participation rates in the workforce can boost Australia’s economy by increasing both overall participation numbers an hours worked (10). But gender equality is a moral as well as economic imperative (12). The OECD reports that many of the gender differences that exist in the workforce are a result of the larger burden of unpaid work including childcare and housework experienced by women compared to men (12). Given the issues surrounding extended deployments, work hours, relocation logistics and childcare availability (and affordability) raised by ADF families as barriers to attention the gender issues may be exacerbated in the military community.
So what can be done about this?
Discussions are underway between Defence leaders and Australia’s official Defence family representative body Defence Families of Australia which will hopefully lead to positive changes in this area. However, the issues and solutions reach beyond the Department of Defence.
Based on the programs available in the US and the UK I propose a number of recommendations for alleviating the career challenges faced by military spouses and to assist them in gaining satisfying career outcomes.
- Undertake research into ADF spouse employment to better understand the issues and inform policy
- Provide and promote career services to individual ADF spouses to assist them in finding and maintaining a satisfying career within the context of their military lifestyle.
- Create a mutually beneficial relationship between ADF spouses and Australian employers.
- Build on and formalize existing relationships
- Improve and expand suitable childcare options
In part two of this article I’ll discuss these recommendations in more detail.
To read more about military spouse employment in the US and the UK visit the links below. These are just some of the many organizations and websites offering information and assistance.
- Heaton, P. and Krull, H (2012). Unemployment among post-9/11 veterans and military spouses after the economic downturn. RAND Corporation.
- Joining Forces Mentoring Plus (2012). Military Spouses: Employment and Careers Issue Brief. BPW Foundation.
- Department of Defence (2012). Department of Defence Census 2011 Public Report.
- Jarvis, P (2003). Career Management Paradigm Shift. Prosperity for Citizens, Windfalls for Governments”.
- Blue Star Families (2014). 2014 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report. Blue Star Families and The Institute fro Veterans and Military Families.
- Trewick, N. and Muller, J (2014). Unemployment in military posses: an examination of the latent and manifest benefits, quality of life and psychological wellbeing. Australian Journal of Career Development, 23(2), pp 47-56.
- National Military Family Association (2016). Leaving the Military. What Spouses Need to Know.
- RAND National Defense Research Institute (2005). Working around the military. Challenges of military spouse employment. RAND Corporation.
- Dempsey, D. Commentary: The importance of spouse careers. Military.com
- Deloitte (2011). Where is your next worker?
- Blue Star Families (2016). Societal cost analysis of the unemployment and underemployment of military spouses.
- OECD (2012). Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now. https://www.oecd.org/gender/Executive%20Summary.pdf
This is a blog version of a larger unpublished discussion paper by the author on military spouse employment in Australia.