90% of Military Wives Jobless or Underemployed 'Not Acceptable'

Many military spouses opt for what Putnam calls “PCS-proof careers” – going into business for themselves or finding a job that allows them to work remotely. But they may struggle to build robust professional networks when they’re uprooted every few years.

If telecommuting isn’t an option, the Department of Defense encourages military husbands and wives to consider “portable careers” such as marketing, teaching, nursing or web designing. But many spouses believe their career options shouldn’t be limited by their partners’ service.

“They push for mobile jobs, like being a nurse or a teacher,” Aikman said. “Well, I didn’t want to be a nurse or a teacher. I wanted to be an engineer.”

(Though Aikman says engineering careers rarely survive multiple cross-country moves, the Defense Department classifies engineering as “portable,” the DOD’s Crabaugh said.)

Even for those with in-demand portable careers, relocation isn’t easy. More than half of active-duty military spouses work in fields that require state licensing or certification, and about 72 percent of licensed military spouses has had to renew their license after a cross-country move, a costly, time-consuming and often frustrating process, according to the Military Officers Association study.

Asher Weinberg, 45, an attorney from New York City married to a Navy officer, estimates he spends about $1,000 to $2,000 to study for and take the bar exam each time he relocates. The six-month waiting periods cost him thousands more in lost wages, he said.

With a little push from first lady Michelle Obama and her military family-support initiative, Joining Forces, many states have enacted license portability statutes designed to make moves easier for military spouses. Some states honor out-of-state military spouses’ licenses while others grant temporary credentials or expedite the re-certification process. But the rules are not uniform and do not include every kind of license.

Such barriers are especially overwhelming when spouses’ partners are deployed or absent. The vast majority of military spouses say they either “need to work” or “want to work,” according to the Military Officers Association study.

“Work was the thing that kept me sane,” Putnam Said. “It gave me a chance to work on improving my life even when my personal life was on hold.”

Aikman agreed.

“I love my work. I need it for me. I need to commit myself to something other than just my family,” she said. “My family is my number-one priority, but if I don’t have my professional life, I have lost my identity.”

The psychological toll isn’t the only problem. Critics worry that military spouse underemployment may be one reason nearly 5,000 active-duty military families are food stamp eligible.

Most active-duty food stamp beneficiaries have larger-than-average families and eventually “promote out” of the food stamp program as they advance through the ranks, the Defense Department notes.

Still, it can’t be denied that for 0.36 percent of active-duty families, a military paycheck (which starts as low as about $20,000 for junior pay grades) does not cover the cost of food.

The Defense Department isn’t blind to military spouses’ employment challenges. But resources are inadequate and ill publicized, spouses say.

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