The hunt for a steady job can be daunting for military spouses, a quarter of whom are reportedly unemployed. All military spouses are faced with unpredictability, which often makes them less attractive to employers,but wives–who account for more than 90% of military spouses–are also subject to the issues that all women contend with in the workplace, from the gender pay gap to the motherhood penalty. Even among military spouses, men are more likely to be gainfully employed: According to a recent Blue Star Families survey, about half of male spouses work full-time, while just 27% of female spouses do. Women’s earnings potential is also compromised, with just 19% of female spouses making more than $50,000, as compared to 44% of male spouses.
But working, period, is a challenge when an active duty spouse can be deployed for months on end. “You’re not a single parent,” one military spouse told me. “But you’re a sole provider for your children, and your spouse has no predictability. They can’t control anything about when they’re there or not. Sometimes you’re in the middle of breakfast, and they leave, and you don’t know when they’re coming back.” For some spouses, entrepreneurship or remote work is the answer, but that brings its own challenges. We talked to three military spouses about what it’s like to find work while juggling unpredictable schedules and childcare responsibilities.
“I had to have three different back-up nannies”
“I think being a military spouse is the privilege of my life thus far,” says Maggie, who is now an entrepreneur. “But it’s really hard.”
Maggie, who has been a military spouse for eight years, has lived in more than seven states; her husband is usually gone about six months out of the year. She started her own company about three years ago, after working in a number of tech roles. “One of the things I’ve found really wonderful about being an entrepreneur is that it’s allowed me to have a high degree of flexibility,” she says. “But I wouldn’t say that my story is necessarily typical.”
For military spouses like Maggie who are parents, juggling work with childcare is even more of a challenge, since their spouse may have to leave at a moment’s notice. “It’s not just like a business trip,” she says. “They’re out for weeks or many months, and you’re not able to anticipate when they’re going to depart or come home.” To prepare for a recent weekend work trip, Maggie had to put three nannies on hold to take care of her four-month-old and two-and-a-half-year-old.
And yet many military spouses gravitate toward jobs in, say, education or healthcare–roles that don’t necessarily offer flexibility and require different licensing by state. In dual military families, Maggie says the woman may often choose to step back from an operational role. Despite the prevalence of remote work, Maggie hasn’t seen a big shift in military spouses working remotely. The remote opportunities are fewer for military spouses, she says, and especially if they work in fields like nursing. “You don’t see a lot of highly skilled remote-work opportunities,” she says. “A lot of the communities aren’t necessarily hubs of innovation. So how would you even establish the relationships to have those opportunities?”
Though there are now many initiatives to help veterans join the civilian workforce, companies don’t necessarily try to recruit military spouses–and in fact, they’re often biased against them. “One of the challenges is that it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind,” Maggie says. “People don’t remember that we’re still in Afghanistan. It’s kind of forgotten that deployment cycles are still very much a reality in these communities.” She adds that it would serve companies well to recruit military spouses for remote work. “If companies are looking for people to do certain types of remote positions, it would be a fabulous community to tap into,” she says. “You’d find a hungry workforce.”
For Maggie, a key motivator to start her own business was having women in her life who showed her what her career could look like. It also helped that she had cofounded software companies prior to becoming a military spouse. “I think I had role models in other women who were like, There is a way to navigate this,” she says. “Largely it’s been about seeking mentors. If a military spouse wants to start something, there are ways to do it.”
“It’s just different being a male spouse. You get excluded a bit”
David was a college basketball coach for 20 years. That changed when he married someone in the military four years ago. Since then, David and his family have lived in three different places, and in a few months, they’ll be making their way from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. “Those [coaching] jobs are pretty limited,” he says. “It’s not like I was a lawyer or a mechanic–jobs that are anywhere in the world.”
David struggled to find a professional coaching job that would be close enough to his family and where his wife needed to be. When he applied for an athletic director’s position at a junior college, he made it to the final round of interviews and then didn’t get the job, partly because he was a military spouse, he believes. So he now works remotely part-time for a company his friend started, which runs a college basketball tournament in Jamaica. (In general, he says, the male military spouses he knows work remotely.)
“I could live anywhere in the world as long as I have my phone and computer,” he says. He concedes he could have taken a different type of job altogether, if something in the realm of coaching wasn’t a viable option. “If I wanted to get a job at Kinko’s or something like that, I’m sure I could probably do those kinds of jobs,” he says. “But something in a professional field is a little more difficult.”
It was also important to David and his wife for one of them to stay home with their children, since they welcomed a new daughter two months ago. “You can’t pass up the time that you could spend with your kids,” he says. “I’ve been there every day with my daughter, and luckily, I found something where I can still work at home and be around the kids and make it work.” When you’re a military family, he points out, you also can’t rely as much on family support. “The odds of you living by your family are pretty slim,” he says. (Last year, when David had to fly to Jamaica for work, his wife was also deployed; they had to ask her aunt and uncle to stay with the kids for a week.)
As a male spouse, David sometimes feels like he isn’t always included in the military spouse community. Many spouses tend to be in pink-collar fields like nursing and teaching, he says, or run small businesses out of their home. When work opportunities arise, they’re often directed at women; some of the workshops offered to military spouses school them in how to start a successful Avon business, for example. “It’s just different being a male spouse,” he says. “There are groups on Facebook, but it feels like you’re the only male. They’ll write, ‘Hey ladies, this opportunity opened up that is perfect for us,’ but you don’t really fit that bill. So you get excluded a bit.”
Continue on to Fast Company to read the complete article.