Jill Biden helps launch new employer challenge for military spouses

by Tommy Grant

Military spouses Katie McCarthy and Monique Street said a new program aimed at providing better long-term job opportunities for military spouses could have helped them in their careers over the last 10 years as they moved around with their husbands.

The new “4 + 1 Commitment: The Formula for Military Spouse Success,” launched Dec. 6, would have provided Street, an Army spouse, with the opportunity for one or more of the jobs she’s had to be more portable, she said. “Sometimes it’s not so much the difficulties with finding a job as it is in keeping a job, due to frequent relocations,” she told Military Times.

A job’s flexibility, in terms of hours, remote work and other factors, can have lasting effects on a spouse’s career and the finances of the family, Street said. “We can start to see career progression. There’s such a disparity in career advancement for military spouses versus our service member counterparts,” she said.

Street, who now works for Blue Star Families, said she always wanted a career in financial wellness, but the demands of the military life meant it took longer to get her accreditation.

Spouse unemployment has remained stubbornly at above 20% for more than a decade, and the Defense Department and the military services, as well as a number of private organizations have worked to provide more opportunities for spouses.

The 4 + 1 Commitment was launched at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. as part of the Blue Star Families’ Do Your Part campaign, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes. The effort is in partnership with the Defense Department’s Military Spouse Employment Partnership. Twelve companies have already signed on, agreeing to commit to at least one of four policy changes. The goal is to have 1,000 companies signed up by the end of 2024.

In addition to the job portability/transferability, the other military-spouse-friendly employment policy change commitments are:

*Offering remote or telework

*Offering flexible work hours

*Providing paid Permanent Change of Station leave.

The “+1″ commitment is to consider joining existing government spouse employment programs.

Katie McCarthy, a Navy spouse, said having that level of flexibility is significant, as well as other aspects such as the PCS leave. “That’s huge, “she said, because of responsibilities such as getting kids enrolled in school, packing and unpacking the house, finding child care, and host of other tasks.

“As individuals, as a woman, as a mom, we’re already faced with so many hurdles getting and keeping employment. Adding being a military spouse into the mix is an additional hurdle,” McCarthy said. So working for a company that can allow flexible work schedules, is a big plus, she said.

McCarthy and Street introduced the guest speaker for the event, first lady Jill Biden. She described the spouse story she has heard over and over: the young military wife juggling young children, holding it together while the husband is deployed, trying unsuccessfully to find a job.

“I meet her and spouses like her everywhere I go. Lawyers and lab techs, teachers and accountants. The husband who feels like he’s lost his purpose,” Biden said. “We don’t just need spouses to have jobs. We need them to be able to keep those jobs, and turn them into careers”

She challenged those in the room to talk to other companies and urged them to commit to this effort.

“Change isn’t easy. But neither is moving to a new military base, again and again. Neither is parenting while your partner is deployed. Neither is losing sleep, worrying that the person you love most in the world might not come home,” Biden said. “That’s what our military spouses do every do every day. They do it even when it’s hard. They do it for us. And we owe them the same devotion.”

Kathy Roth-Douquet, co-founder and CEO of Blue Star Families, described the commitment as an effort “to stave off a national security crisis,” adding that “it’s a crisis that snuck up on us.”

Traditional workplace conventions need to change, Roth-Douquet said. “One of the top reasons that people who are otherwise promotable say they’ll leave the military is because of spouse career challenges. And the top reasons for military families no longer recommending [military] service, is that military lifestyle challenges prevent a second income and lead to financial hardships.”

Military spouses “present an incredible workforce opportunity for American business,” said Eric Eversole, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and president of Hiring Our Heroes. “They’re incredibly well educated, they’re resilient. They understand how to get the job done no matter what. Make no mistake about it. Hiring military spouses is not only a great business decision, but it’s also critical to our national security.”

Ellyn Dunford, wife of retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the world is different than when she married her husband in 1984, as fewer than 35% of spouses with children under age 6 worked at that time. She was an exception, she said, maintaining her career through many moves, while raising three children and volunteering at each duty station. “I loved being married to my Marine, and loved the friends I made. I loved the feeling that our whole family served,” she said.

She made enough money to improve their quality and life and put some money aside, but there were significant challenges with costs such as child care and professional licensing, she said.

“If I had said I was done with the many moves, and disruptions to my career and my children’s lives, and done with the long separations, Joe might have decided to leave the service,” Dunford said.

“Who will we lose if we can’t find flexible, professional employment for our spouses” and address the child care need, she added.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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