The Patchwork Career of a Military Spouse
By Lori Cleymans
Imagine these two scenerios, both conversations between spouses where one partner is in the military:
“Honey, I’m home! Guess what? I just received orders to Italy! Isn’t that great?!” Oh no! I thought. I just started my nursing degree. Now I have to wait three years before we return to the U.S. and start all over again!
“Michael, I just got orders for recruiting duty in Kansas!” Kansas? I thought. Will they have any jobs for aircraft mechanics there?
This is the reality for military spouses; frequent moves which may require a spouse to end one career and find a new one with each relocation. With moves occurring every three to four years, many military spouses look like job-hoppers with scattered skill sets traversing the globe. Over the years, I have worked with military spouses who are looking for employment at their new home. For example, I have worked with spouses who were teachers in one state, but their license was not accepted at the new location. The client then had to decide whether it’s worth the time and money to get a new state license, or just find a new career path.
I understand first-hand the frustration of finding a job and maintaining a career since I too am a military spouse. Within my first year of marriage I moved three times! I didn’t have time to bother looking for a job, let alone build a career. My personal journey has taken me to Virginia, North Carolina, Okinawa, California, Georgia, back to Okinawa, and in 2014 I move again. Throughout these moves I have faced limited opportunities. Other times I had to volunteer just to stay in my career field and yet I struggled to pay bills since there wasn’t additional income. I was extremely fortunate this time around in Okinawa to find a position that is in my field and we’ve been able to stay more than three years. Finally, some solid work experience!
Although some careers seem portable, when a military spouse is faced with moving to remote or overseas locations, their career path may suffer. One client I worked with, Sally, had started her career in psychology and was working toward a nursing degree when she learned her husband received orders to Okinawa, Japan. She discovered that none of the colleges offered a nursing program, so everything she was working for was now on hold. Upon arriving to Okinawa, Sally realized she still needed a job to pay the bills, so she took a job outside of her career field. She was unsatisfied, and upset with military life and being so far from home. After only six months in the job, she moved into an administrative position, which was still not in her field, but offered more satisfaction. As I worked with her, we focused on her transferrable skills; what she had and would gain from the administrative position that would be needed in any field. After pointing out all of her skills, she was more satisfied with her circumstances and continued to hone her transferrable skills for future employment.
Some clients I have worked with see the relocation as an opportunity to enter a new career field. After an initial discussion of where the client has been in his/her career, I have the client do an assessment. I especially enjoy using the O*Net Interest assessment and the Knowdell Card Sort to help guide clients in all facets of the job search. Following the assessment we develop a plan on how to gain experience/training in that new career.
However, there are instances when the hurdles prove too much to overcome. While working as a Transition Specialist in Okinawa, I received an email from a military spouse who had a great career as an architect in the U.S. Her husband was stationed in Okinawa and she wanted to be with him, but did not want to leave a career she had worked hard for over the past six years. The need for architects in Okinawa is close to non-existent, which led this client to hesitate moving to Okinawa without securing a job. Regardless of all of the avenues I encouraged her to try, she remained uncertain. I told her that it all comes down to priorities: “do you want to be with your husband, or do you want to make the marriage work long-distance to keep your job?” Neither choice was right or wrong; it was the fact that she needed to make a decision.
Since the spotlight has been on veterans finding employment, military spouses have been able to share in some of that attention. Some of the resources available to military spouses are
- National Military Family Association – nmfa.org
- Family Service Centers located at the military installation
- Joining Forces - whitehouse.gov/joiningforces
- MilSpouse eMentor Program - ementorprogram.org/p/milspouse/
Over the years, an increased focus and need for military spouses to find employment has been evident. Historically, more women have been the trailing spouse in a military family, and now that more women are working than ever before (women make up 49.9% of American workers), career development practitioners have a responsibility to not only veterans, but their spouses as well.
Even with the hurdles of being a military spouse, it is possible to build a career. There may be detours, roadblocks, and stumbles, but each of these provide an opportunity to branch out to a new area. I tell my clients to think about what they can do, instead of focusing on what they can’t do. It is possible to find a new career passion while on that detour!
Lori Cleymans, GCDF, CWDP/JSS, CPRW, JCTC is the Lead Transition Specialist at Marine Corps Community Services in Okinawa, Japan. She has been working with military members and their spouses for 16 years, nine of those years in the field of employment assistance. Contact Lori at firstname.lastname@example.org