The employment topic the ADF should be concerned about: Military spouse employment and its effect on capability

Click on the ADF’s website [1] and you will see a clear link to information on the Prime Minister’s Veterans’ Employment Program [2]. It is fantastic to see veteran employment getting the attention it deserves.  It makes sense that the former employer of veterans would consider this an important issue. Veterans acquire valuable skills from the military training and service and the ADF should ensure that upon leaving the ADF veterans are able to translate these skills to civilian employment. The topic of veteran employment is being addressed exactly by the appropriate agencies– DVA, industry and ex-service organisations [2].

There is, however, another employment topic that the ADF should be concerned about and it is one that receives little to no attention– military spouse employment.

Whilst I have previously discussed the many reasons for addressing military spouse employment in Australia, its relevance to capability is arguably of the most interest to the ADF [3, 14].

The 2016 White Paper states “one of the most important and challenging jobs Defence will have in the coming decades will be maintaining the capability of the ADF and APS workforce to achieve the Strategic Defence Objectives” [4].

The ADF workforce is predicted to grow from around the current 58,000 to 62,400 over the next decade and “new technologies will require new skills and will rely even more than now on the diverse range of skills of the integrated workforce” [4].  This means the ADF need a growing number of suitable personnel so they can match them to the tasks at hand to deliver the required capability– “It is not enough to have the best equipment– it needs to be operated and supported by the best people” (page 150). This means both attracting and retaining the right people and Defence acknowledge that this will be a major challenge and that “Being an employer of choice for Australians in a more competitive labour market will require fundamental changes to how Defence plans, manages, and supports its peoples” (page 150).  This is where the topic of military spouse employment becomes highly relevant yet receives very little attention.  The White Paper refers to spouse employment only once: “We will continue to assist spouses with finding new work, particularly where their employment has been affected through a posting or deployment of their serving partner” (page 159). Given current support (or lack thereof) there is certainly a lot of work to be done in this area. Yet military spouse employment is highly relevant to the future capability of the ADF and is deserving of far more attention.

So how does military spouse employment affect capability?

Of the 58,000 currently serving members over half of these are married or in an interdependent relationship [5].  As the workforce grows to its estimated 62,400 the number of ADF spouses and partners will increase.  Whilst we lack sufficient data on spouse employment experiences in Australia (presumably because the topic is not considered important) the evidence that we do have, and the extensive research from the US and the UK, indicates that military spouse employment is an extremely important issue for contemporary military families and that military spouses experience disadvantage in comparison to their civilian counterparts with unemployment and underemployment being key issues [6-8]. In the US, research shows that despite having higher education levels military spouses have higher unemployment and underemployment levels and lower wage earnings than their civilian counterparts [7, 8].

For military families this translates to a significant financial impact.  As US career expert Michelle Still Mehta points out in her article “unless spousal employment improves, the military member’s compensation is essentially a family wage rather than an individual wage” [9]. For many families in Australia, dual incomes aren’t a luxury they are a financial necessity.  In addition to immediate financial disadvantages of unemployment and underemployment there are some long term financial consequences for those who engage in less paid work [10] such as the lack of accumulation of leave and superannuation benefits. The current status of spouse employment doesn’t make the military a particularly attractive financial option for families.  This is aside from the fact that presumably the “best and brightest” that the ADF need to attract and retain will also attract and be attracted to other “best and brightest” and if military life doesn’t offer them both satisfying career lives then again the military isn’t looking like an attractive option in a competitive labour market. Why would a couple want to sacrifice significant earning and career satisfaction potential?

The challenges associated with military spouse employment don’t just affect ADF families in a financial sense.  There is strong evidence that work is good for physical and mental health and wellbeing [11]. One Australian study reported that Australian military spouses who were employed experienced better health, better quality relationships and higher levels of psychological wellbeing than those who were unemployed [12].  A US study concluded that career and professional development is one of the best opportunities for spouse quality of life [13]. Aside from the idea that the ADF has an obligation to support ADF family wellbeing (acknowledged in the White Paper) family wellbeing also affects capability and operational readiness.  It is reasonable to assume that serving members with a high quality of family health and wellbeing are more likely to make a more effective contribution to their workplace and positively contribute to the morale, operational readiness and capability of the ADF.

Even within the current dialogue about the need to support our veterans upon separation from the ADF the topic of military spouse employment should be playing a key role. A family’s financial status at the time of separation from the ADF is an important consideration.  Providing assistance with military spouse employment from the outset can help better prepare families for transition when the time comes.  The financial impact of separation from the ADF cannot be underestimated.  When family financial security is reliant on the serving member’s wage, separation from the ADF presents a significant financial consideration and challenge. This is especially important when separation is unexpected such as the case with medical discharges.  Dual income via satisfactory spouse employment can make a significant contribution to financial readiness for separation (either voluntary or involuntary) and ease both the financial and emotional stress associated with the member finding new employment outside the ADF.

Military spouse employment is a significant issue affecting contemporary ADF families and is likely to affect the ADF’s ability to realise its future capability requirements by recruiting and retaining the people it needs.  It is time for Australia to seriously address this issue by recognizing the challenges faced by spouses, the numerous benefits to individuals, families, the ADF and Australian society by improving outcomes and by discussing and implementing solutions to do so.



  1. Department of Defence. 2016  [cited 2016 Dec 3]; Available from:
  2. Department of Defence. Prime Minister’s Veterans’ Employment Program. 2016  [cited 2016 Dec 3]; Available from:
  3. McCue, A., Australian Defence Force (ADF)  Spouse Employment report. 2016. (unpublished work)
  4. Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper, Defence, Editor. 2016.
  5. Department of Defence, Department of Defence Census 2011 Public Report, Department of Defence, Editor. 2012: Canberra, Australia.
  6. Court, G., New Employment Model (NEM)-Consulation-Phase 1 Focus Groups, Ministry of Defence, Editor. 2014.
  7. United States Government Accountability Office, Military Spouse Employment Programs.  DOD can improve guidance and performance monitoring, G.A.O. (GAO), Editor. 2012.
  8. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on Plans for the Department of Defense for the Support of Military Family Readiness, Department of Defense, Editor. 2011.
  9. Still Mehta Silent Sacrifice: Military Spouse Unemployment in America. New America, 2016. 144.
  10. AWPA, Future Focus.  2013 National Workforce Development Strategy. 2013, Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency: Canberra.
  11. Waddell, G. and A.K. Burton, Is Work Good For Your Health and Well-being?, Department of Work and Pensions, Editor. 2006, TSO: United Kingdom.
  12. Trewick, N. and J. Muller, Unemployment in military spouses:  An examination of the latent and manifest benefits, quality of life, and psychological wellbeing. Australian Journal of Career Development, 2014. 23(2): p. 47-56.
  13. Castaneda, L.W. and M.C. Harrell, Military Spouse Employment: A Grounded Theory Approach to Experiences and Perceptions. Armed Forces and Society, 2008. 34(3): p. 389-412.
  14. McCue, Amanda.  Military spouse employment in Australia., 2016.

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