Military spouse employment has been a pain point for military families and the Department of Defense (DOD) for decades. While awareness of the issue has increased, DOD program funding has stagnated and spouse unemployment rates have continued to climb, leaving many to wonder if military spouse employment programs are a waste of resources.
“I think we need more transparency and visibility into the process,” said Sue Hoppin, founder and president of National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), an organization dedicated to the professional development of military spouse professionals.
NMSN’s 2022 white paper asks, “What is really happening here?” emphasizing the need for data. “When we say it’s a ‘successful’ military spouse employment program, what does that mean?” Hoppin asks. “Does that mean that it’s successful because it exists? Or is it successful because it achieves its intended consequence?”
Civilian Employers—What Isn’t Measured Doesn’t Count
NMSN is not alone in their search for military spouse employment outcome data. While reporting on this topic in 2019, it was one of my first questions. Where is the data? I conducted an interview with a key official in a military spouse employment-focused organization, asking if there were any detailed data points available on who was offered a job at a hiring fair or if that job offer translated into actual employment. They did not have any internal data and did not require the employers that participate in these events to track that data. In other words, “veteran-friendly” employers could attend events, snap a few photos with military spouses, but not actually hire them.
Fast forward three years and a lot has changed. According to MAJ Charlie Dietz, DOD spokesperson, “as of July of 2021, all new employer partners in the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) are required to report the numbers of military spouses hired. For our existing partners, we are working with each of them to explore options to increase the level of reporting.” For many military spouses seeking to work in the private sector, this information could not come at a better time.
Federal Employers—Following the Letter, but Not the Heart of the Law
For those seeking to work for the federal government, military spouse hiring preferences (offered by the Office of Personnel Management & DOD) are programs designed to mitigate the career disruption of the military lifestyle by giving military spouses a leg up during the federal hiring process. While offered, the implementation by hiring agencies may be inconsistent. For instance, an internal Air Force Human Resources document states that if an OCONUS agency wishes to hire an employee from the US, they can request the individual by name but still must post the job “for a minimum of 5 days to permit overseas military spouses and family members to apply and receive preference, as applicable, which remains a DoD requirement.”
In the federal hiring world, posting a job for the minimum period required is an indication that the hiring authority has someone in mind, discouraging many from applying. OPM even requires a justification for a posting less than five days for this reason. It is unclear how many spouses successfully, or unsuccessfully, use this preference. The NMSN white paper states, “the total number of noncompetitive appointments of certain military spouses made by executive branch agencies remained under 1.0% of federal new hires.” No such data was posted on DOD hiring activities or the use of the military spouse hiring preference.
“There’s a growing segment of the military spouse population who’s coming into military service with skills with some kind of professional background and work experience under their belt,” said Heba Abdelaal, former congressional staffer and 2022 Armed Forces Insurance Ramstein Air Base Military Spouse of the Year®.
Abdelaal is one of many professional spouses who has struggled to align her professional goals with her spouse’s military service. Abdelaal is a first-generation American whose international background led her to pursue a career of public service, working as a staffer for Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.).
Her personal and professional lives collided when she realized she could provide insights into the struggles faced by military families in a legislative context. “If we’re [Congress] going to expect to recruit and retain the best and most skilled of our [military] population it’s likely that their spouses share that same level of ambition,” said Abdelaal. She took every opportunity to set the record straight, reminding congressional leaders that military spouses are driven professionals. Today Abdelaal still helps military spouses by sharing her insights as a volunteer for NMSN’s Day of Advocacy, encouraging them to take an active role to help educate government officials on how best to solve these complex problems.
“I think everyone’s always looking for a way that they can be part of a big solution,” said Hoppin. “And the reality is, big solutions don’t happen overnight. It’s the little incremental changes that we can make.” Hoppin shared that sometimes the biggest contribution a military spouse can make is taking every opportunity to tell their story. On this everyone agrees. “It is imperative that the spouse community provides feedback when they utilize our programs,” said Dietz. “This feedback helps provide the department with actionable items to make improvements.”
Without these stories there is no data, and without data there is no way to make informed change.
Legislation Would Offer Tax Credit to Employers Who Hire Spouses
A bill offering employers a tax credit for hiring a military spouse was introduced in the Senate in March.
The Military Spouse Hiring Act (S. 3909) would expand the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) to include military spouses, whose unemployment rate hovers between 22% and 24%. The bill, introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), is the Senate companion to H.R. 2974.
Employers that use WOTC receive a tax credit equal to 40% of up to $6,000 of wages paid to an employee from one of the target groups in their first year of employment if they perform at least 400 hours of work.