Some new ideas to provide meaningful employment for military spouses

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A series of legislative actions over the last few years have failed to alleviate an ongoing problem for the military. Namely, ensuring that spouses of relocated service members can find good employment in the new duty station. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got a review of the situation and some fresh recommendations from the founder and president of the National Military Spouse Network, Sue Hoppin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Hoppin, good to have you on.

Sue Hoppin: Thanks so much for having me Tom.

Tom Temin: Review for us, first of all, what the current situation looks like in terms of spouses, their unemployment levels, their employment levels, and whether they’re getting the types of employment that live up to their skills, abilities and experiences.

Sue Hoppin: That’s a really great question and that should really help serve to set the tone for today’s conversation, actually, because spousal unemployment hovers around 20%. Of course, that’s the pre pandemic percentage. In 2019, DoD reported it was 22%, but they also reported that was statistically the same as the 24% they reported in 2017. As you alluded to, in addition to unemployment, military spouses experienced a significant amount of underemployment, right. So they’re engaged in jobs that are below what their educational goals would have them at. Organizationally, military spouse, employment programs are not always effective, because there’s a lack of understanding around military spouses. It’s too easy for organizations to expand their veteran hiring practices thinking that will make an impact, but the two groups have very different needs. And while there’s been a lot of focus on hiring military spouses, there needs to be more attention paid to how to retain military spouses through transition. Without that, it’s going to be difficult to see any real movement on the military spouse unemployment front.

Tom Temin: Sure. And it’s not as if Congress has ignored the issue, because in your latest report you pointed out several reforms over the last going back four-five years.

Sue Hoppin: Absolutely. And everyone’s doing a lot to help military spouse and employment, I think it’s a lack of understanding around the nuances about military spouse on appointments, because they have done a lot. They’ve increased reimbursement rates for licensing so military spouses are now able to get up to $1,000, in conjunction with the PCS. The my career advancement accounts, that program, the ongoing enhancements, really help younger military spouses. A big one is the transferability of the post 9/11 GI Bill benefits that allow us to go back to school, which is fantastic. You look at the expansion of the entrepreneurship programs and resources available through the SBA, the Small Business Administration, to incorporate military spouse entrepreneurs. That’s fantastic. I think for us, the jury’s still out on those non competitive appointment authorities, and the DoD military spouse hiring preference, the number say it works, but it’s like a unicorn and spouse community, none of us know anybody who’s been hired under this authority. So we’d love to hear from people who have. And we can’t forget Joining Forces, under Michelle Obama, she was able to bring a lot of attention to the importance of hiring military spouses for corporations. So she was able to bring a lot of people to the table and bring about some recognition that military spouses are really untapped workforce. So we’re all really, really excited about joining Forces 2.0, especially under the leadership of Rory Brosius, who was also in the Obama administration. So there’s some institutional knowledge there that we’re looking forward to seeing,

Tom Temin: And not withstanding the direct hiring authorities, basically though you’re looking for employment in the greater community, and not necessarily just on base for the government.

Sue Hoppin: Oh, absolutely. Because a lot of times military installations are in small towns and there’s no way that that inflation is going to be able to absorb all the military spouses who want to work. We’re going to rely on those mom and pops employers as well as big corporations.

Tom Temin: Is one of the enduring issues though, regardless of transferability, of licenses, and so forth, and the help that spouses can get on that front, the fact that maybe in those towns, people/employers realize the short duration often of that person’s dwelling in that area because military people get moved a lot, and that figure well you’re going to be gone in 18 months or two years, so I’m not going to hire you?

Sue Hoppin: That might have been the case five or eight years ago, but the evolution of the worker writ large is such that people are not staying around for that gold watch at 20 years, people are moving jobs every three to five years anyway. I don’t know the exact number but their experience is closer to that of a military spouse. And the advantage of having a military spouse is that they’re not looking for another job while they’re working for you, right, they know they are probably going to PCS potentially in three years, so they’re looking to do the best job they can for you while they’re there. And you don’t even know how long they’re going to be there, because in my case, my husband moved to DC for a job from Ramstein, Germany and we stayed here for the rest of his career. We were able to do that because he was able to take other jobs in the community. So had they hired me, they would have had me for as long as they wanted me. So those kind of misconceptions, were working really hard to dispel those with other partner organizations because that kind of narrative just doesn’t ring true anymore.

Tom Temin: Alright, and you now have a series of recommendations, brand new ones for reform. Let’s briefly review those.

Sue Hoppin: Sure. We still think that it’s very, very important to expand the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to include military spouses to target work class, that would essentially incentivize employers to hire military spouses. And we still believe that we need a RAND level study on military spouse employment and unemployment, because the granularity and military spouse unemployment information just doesn’t exist right now. So we have like the top line information, which is this is the percent of military spouse unemployment, this is how it is broken down by service branch. But aside from that, we just don’t know. We don’t know how many military spouses are engaged in entrepreneurship. We don’t know how it breaks down on racial or gender numbers, we just don’t have that kind of granularity. So we think we really need to study it, because I think it’s really important that we know what the numbers are before we can really implement effective practices and programs to change those numbers. An easy way to do that would be DoD could leverage existing survey of active duty military spouses that’s conducted every two years to collect more granular data by adding more information on military spouse employment, that’d be easy enough for them to do. Another thing we could do is make sure that military spouses and any family member actually has access to all the military spouse employment information, resources and programs that affect them in one place, it could go on military one source. But that would also include information on the status of forces agreements, the SOFAs, which kind of dictate whether or not a military spouse can work overseas based on the installation. So many other recommendations. A lot of it goes around data. I think we need to dig deeper to understand the military spouse experience. Let’s see what hiring managers on the other side think about hiring military spouses. Maybe DoD could partner with someone like SHRM to actually take a look at the experience of hiring practices and human resources managers about what they’re doing to hire military spouses and find these military spouses.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so maybe get a little better idea of what it is the industry, through the society of human relations management, how it looks from their standpoint.

Sue Hoppin: Exactly. Because this isn’t going to be done just all through DoD. We’re going to have to involve the entire community in this and all the stakeholders. We also have some other recommendations that wouldn’t involve maybe expanding existing legislation. Congress may consider allowing military veterans to transfer their federal hiring preferences to their spouses or caregivers. There’s certainly precedents in this for with transferability of the GI Bill benefits. And also to reduce unemployment underemployment, Congress may also wish to consider passing a law similar to the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999. That was an act that was developed help federal agencies meet the government wide goal that not less than 3% of total value of all prime contract and subcontract awards are made to small businesses owned and controlled by service disabled veterans. Another way around this is they could just expand the category of veteran owned small businesses to include businesses owned and operated by military spouses. So those are some of our recommendations.

Tom Temin: Yes, well that’s quite a roster. And a final question, the pandemic is that had an effect one way or the other on the whole problem?

Sue Hoppin: Anecdotally, we know that it has and I think it’s a reflection of what’s going on in society writ large. Military spouses are having to curtail the number of hours they’re able to work because they have children at home tele-learning. So I think that what you’re going to see in the general population is going to be reflected in the military spouse population.

Tom Temin: Sue Hoppin is founder and president of the National Military Spouse Network. Thanks so much for joining me.

Sue Hoppin: Thanks so much for the conversation. I really appreciate the opportunity.

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