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We Can Do It: 4 Challenges and 6 Solutions for Military Spouse Education and Careers

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Do you ever feel like being a military spouse is a full-time job all by itself?

During my husband’s last deployment, I often said that I had two full-time jobs; one required keeping the office at the local funeral home running smoothly, and the other required assembling and mailing care packages, writing letters, and arranging my sleep schedule so I was awake and online whenever my husband had a chance to be online himself.  Nothing in the world has ever been more fulfilling, but it was exhausting.

The military service is one of the rare occupations which requires almost as much of its spouses as of its members.  Military wives, like traditional preachers’ wives or political first ladies, often find that their husbands’ careers place demands on them nearly equal to a career of their own.

For many military spouses, this often seems to mean placing their own career goals second or sacrificing them entirely.

In the most recent Survey of Army Families (2004-2005), roughly two-thirds of Army spouses responded that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their husbands’ Army job and opportunity to develop job skills, but only slightly more than one third of Army spouses reported favorably on their own employment opportunities and long-term career prospects as military spouses.  Another third of Army spouses reported being actually dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their own career and educational opportunities.

This disparity is distressing, mostly because so many spouses are willing to accept it.

The demands of military life and the lack of flexibility in service members’ assignments and orders may make it seem like we, as military spouses, have no choice but to put our own goals second by default. The good news is that we do have choices.  People who have achieved any measure of success in a field frequently look back and speak sagely of “paying dues” in their early days, and career-oriented military spouses often simply have to pay higher dues than other aspirants.

  • Emotional Strain:  Especially during deployments, service members need a level of emotional and logistical support that requires much time and energy from a spouse.  It can be challenging to balance the desire to give your partner the love and support you want to give with your other goals and obligations.  The sheer emotional stress of deployment, reintegration, and relocation can also make it hard to concentrate on work, studying, or anything else.
  • Relocation:  Military families move often, and unless a couple is willing to make the difficult and painful decision to live apart so that each can maintain a career, the civilian partner is usually left with no choice but to leave one job and move with only the hope of finding another. This can increase the difficulty of finding another job, since it creates a very unstable-looking job history and makes employers much less willing to offer a job with serious responsibility or high wages.  Military spouses often have difficulty acquiring the right work experience to obtain a high-paying or fulfilling job, and it becomes especially difficult to progress in a career or profession.  Frequent moves also make it difficult to complete a degree program since they entail transfers between schools.
  • Location, Location, Location:  Many military bases tend to be located in areas where certain occupations may be less in demand, which leaves many civilian spouses either unemployed or working outside their fields, usually in a lower-paying job than they are actually qualified for.
  • Childcare:  Four out of five military families have children living at home, and two thirds of those have very young children, often more than one. When a service member deploys, the spouse is left with sole responsibility for the children.  Logistically and emotionally, this temporary single-parenting can be daunting and often presents a significant obstacle to work or study outside the home.  The military does provide some childcare assistance, but one third of spouses in the Survey of Army Families described themselves as dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the availability of child care in the military community.

As daunting as these obstacles may seem, it is possible to balance a rewarding and fulfilling civilian career with the unique challenges of a spouse’s military career.

Here are some general suggestions:

  • Compromise.  The only way to get the job you want in your field may be agreeing to a longer commute; it is up to you to decide whether building up your resume and working toward your career goals are worth the drive.
  • Don’t rule out volunteering.  In some places the only way to stay active in your field or gain relevant experience may be volunteer work- which can turn out to be even more interesting and rewarding than a paying job, in addition to helping bolster a resume.
  • Try online education:  Reputable colleges are increasingly offering online degree programs at the bachelor’s and even the graduate level, and many of these schools have programs specifically tailored to accommodate the needs of service members and their families.
  • Use MyCAA:  In an attempt to improve military spouses’ employment prospects, the Department of Defense now offers up to $4,000 of financial assistance to each spouse toward an associate’s degree (which can be a springboard to a four-year degree), professional license, or certification program.  Despite its limitations, this is one of the military’s better programs and can be a good resource for spouses trying to begin a career or retrain for a more portable one.
  • Seek other financial aid:  Other financial aid programs are also available for spouses seeking four-year degrees; some are military-family specific and others are part of the normally available selection of federal financial aid.
  • Check out Military OneSource.  This free Department of Defense program offers counseling and resources for a wide range of education and career issues including applying to schools, financial aid, designing a degree plan, building a resume, and help with your job search and career development.

To borrow a catchphrase from an earlier generation of military spouses and other determined women, “We can do it!”