Low Employment Rate of Military Spouses


Military spouses are disproportionately underrepresented in the workforce due to many factors, including frequent moves, education transfer issues, occupational licensing restrictions, and more. When employed, military spouses have to deal with the military member’s unpredictable hours as well as possible deployments, and, on average, earn 26.8 percent less in wage and salary income than their non-military spouse peers. (The Council of Economic Advisers, 2018).

Who Are Military Spouses?

In the United States, there are more than 1 million active, guard, and reserve military spouses. (Bradbard & Armstrong, 2016). Given that men make up 84% of the enlisted forces and 82% of officer corps, women are significantly more likely to be among the ranks of military spouses. (Reynolds & Shendruck, 2018). This gender imbalance leaves females making up 93% of active duty military spouses. Additionally, all military spouses are on average 33 years old and 74% have children ages 18 or under in the home. Beyond the scope of active duty military spouses, there are more than 15 million military veterans’ spouses and an estimated 5.8 million surviving spouses of deceased veterans. (Bradbard & Armstrong, 2016).

Military Family Life

Family life in the United States is taking on new facets as cohabitation and same-sex relationships are becoming increasingly more accepted. The average age at first marriage in 2015 for women was 27.1 years and 29.2 years for men, showing a sharp trend in postponing marriage. (Macionis, 2018). The military also reflects this trend, with the average age of married Active Duty enlisted at 30.4 years and officers at 36.9 years. (Department of Defense, 2016). The marriage rate, however, is substantially different. In 2013, 48.1% of the entire country’s population, age 15 and over, was married. (United States Census Bureau, 2013). The marriage rate is higher among Active Duty members, totaling 53.5% in 2016. (Department of Defense, 2016). The higher marriage rates among military members is likely to corelate with the increased benefits a military member receives as part of a married couple, primarily regarding housing, but also insurance, installation access, and additional pay. Married military members are no longer are required to live in dormitories and can take their additional earnings to live in the local community or may opt for installation housing if it is available. Let’s look at some additional ways the military family differs from the average family in the United States.

Active duty military personnel move on average once every two to three years, 2.4 times as often as civilian families. Military spouses move across state lines 10 times more frequently than their civilian counterparts and sometimes overseas. Frequent relocation can create gaps in employment, inability to start or complete education, and unemployment or underemployment (working in a position inconsistent with work experience or education). (Bradbard & Armstrong, 2016). Almost a third of military families report more than $1,000 of unreimbursed expenses during their last move, and 72% cannot obtain reliable access to child care. Additionally, 67% of military spouses say lack of childcare has impacted their ability to pursue employment or education. (Bogen, 2019).

Many military installations offer a quality child care facilities, but this arrangement is often a double-edged sword. With limited availability, placement preference goes first to families with both parents employed, but the fees increase as the combined income level rises. Full time care in the Child Development Center program, for children ages 0-5, starts at just under $300 per month per child, and goes up to over $900 per month per child, depending on total family income. The School Aged Care program, for children enrolled in grades K-8, follow the same income category schedules, but range from $150 per month per child to over $500 per month per child for before and after school care. Fees are based on the branch of service and annual Department of Defense guidance and can vary depending on location. (Department of Defense, 2019).

Another factor alongside frequent moves and concern for child care is the variability of the military member’s schedule. If the military member works on first shift, accommodations like child care and regular school days are easily handled. Alternative shift work may force the spouse to be the care provider or arrange for transportation to child care or school. Odd schedules, like three days on and two days off, may interfere with the military spouse’s availability at their own job. Temporary Duty assignments may arise and leave the military member in another location for anywhere from a few days to many months. On deployments, the military member often is sent overseas to support the military efforts elsewhere, and the time away from their home can range anywhere from 6 months to years. While the military member is financially compensated for time away from family and deployment hazards, the priority of the military member’s commitment to the mission often makes the military spouse’s career advancement goals, through education or employment, fall short of ideal due to matters of the home taking precedence, especially when it comes to child care.

Education and Licensing

Given the predominantly female population of military spouses, the best we can compare higher education statistics among this population is to that of all women in the United States. For the most part, women have made huge strides in college level schooling, with figures in 2016 showing women earning 61% of all associate’s degrees, 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, 58% of all master’s degrees, and 52% of all doctorates. Gender stereotyping at this institutional level exists abundantly, encouraging women to pursue majors in English, education, heath professions, or the arts, while steering men towards business, sciences, and engineering. Despite women being well represented in many graduate fields, men still dominate the “male” professions, receiving 52% of medical degrees, 52% of dental degrees, and 54% of law degrees. (Macionis, 2018). Despite more military spouses pursuing higher education than civilian spouses, regardless of gender, higher education can introduce new uncertainty for military spouses that they must manage. (Sollitto & Cole, 2019).

The My Career Advancement Account Scholarship provides a maximum tuition benefit of $4,000 to eligible military spouses who need professional credentials to meet their portable career goals. This scholarship is available to spouses of service members E-1 to E-5, W-1 to W-2, and O-1 to O-2 who have successfully completed high school or a GED. Unfortunately, pay grades outside those listed, spouses that are married but legally separated, Guard or Reserve spouses whose military sponsor falls under a transition status, and spouses married to a member of the Coast Guard are not eligible for this program. There are specific costs that the scholarship does not cover, but for the most part, it pays tuition as well as certificate programs and licensure fees at most accredited institutions. (Department of Defense Spouse Education and Career Opportunities, 2018). This scholarship is a great way to pursue an associate’s degree, which can typically be completed before receiving new Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders.

Holding this degree sets the spouse up for potential success regardless of what future orders may bring; 72% of associate’s degree holders who transfer mid-schooling still get their bachelor’s degree. Ensuring all necessary forms are in place and academic advisors are contacted ahead of time are two ways a military spouse can adequately prepare for transferring to a four-year institution at a new duty location. Additionally, some military spouses opt for online programs that offer courses that can be taken anywhere, and in some cases even elect to stay behind if orders are received to finish their degrees at home. (Duttweiler, 2019).

When looking at the existing level of education among military spouses, we find that 84% have some college education or higher, 25% have a bachelor’s degree, and 10% have an advanced degree. Additionally, 35% of spouses work in a field that requires licensure, and of the 78% of spouses who reported they had experienced a military move during their husband or wife’s active duty career, only 11% acquired a new professional license or credential after their last move. (Bradbard & Armstrong, 2016). Dr. Jill Biden and former First Lady Michelle Obama were proponents of license reciprocity through their “Joining Forces” initiative, but since President Trump’s inauguration, this campaign has faded among issues in today’s political climate. Thankfully, organizations like the Defense State Liaison Office have formed to take on the issue of license reciprocity and other state-regulated issues among military families. A similar advocacy group exists specifically for military spouse lawyers. (Lornsdale, 2017).

Employment Opportunities and Working

The United States boasts a declining unemployment rate of about 4%, but this official figure, computed from registered individuals among unemployment offices who are actively seeking work, does not accurately represent the real number of unemployed workers. Many people who look for jobs do not register with such agencies. Others will begin the search for jobs and become discouraged after not finding adequate employment, removing them from the official unemployment statistics. (Macionis, 2018). These commonplace findings among the regular population are often even more serious among military spouses.

A recent Department of Defense survey found that a quarter of military spouses are unemployed — a rate roughly six times the 2017 national average of about 4 percent (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and nearly two and a half times the rate in the majority of the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods. (Bogen, 2019). Military spouses are also underemployed; 33% report they are underemployed based on their educational background. (Bradbard & Armstrong, 2016). In a 2018 report from Blue Star Families, military families report difficulty making ends meet at twice the rate of civilian families. More than half of the families said the main reason for that difficulty is that the family’s nonmilitary partner had struggled with unemployment or underemployment (meaning they couldn’t find work in the field he or she was trained for). (Bogen, 2019).

The Department of Defense offers a hiring preference to military spouses when they apply for Department of Defense jobs through USAJobs. A similar initiative is in place at installation level through NAFJobs (jobs that pay wages out of non-appropriated funds, which is money the installation makes for itself). Despite removal of regulations on the number of jobs you can apply for through USAJobs, you can still only utilize military spouse preference for one offer of federal permanent employment per duty location. (Military OneSource, 2019). Getting in the door with an entry level NAF position using spouse preference and then finding another more suitable and/or lucrative position through USAJobs would leave the applicant without spouse preference on the second application and likely be the difference between being selected for that position or not.

The above-mentioned Blue Star Families report also states that 51% of the military spouses that are employed earn less than $20,000 per year. (Sollitto & Cole, 2019). This correlates with statistics on military spouses’ unemployment and underemployment mentioned previously. Part time positions or work from home opportunities may be some options for military spouses, but the military member’s commitment to the mission will almost always take priority, and the nonmilitary partner will often take time off to care for legal matters, sick family members, and/or necessary purchases, most often at the expense of their own earnings or perhaps the entire job.

Additionally, we must circle back around to the discrepancy between the rate of pay among military spouses. Accounting for differences in sex, age, race, ethnicity, and education, military spouses on average, earn 26.8 percent less in wage and salary income than their non-military spouse peers. (The Council of Economic Advisers, 2018). This discrepancy is clearly a result of the previously detailed high rate of unemployment and frequent underemployment that military spouses experience. When considering this difference, we also have to take into account the existing wage gap between men and women of the entire population, with women earning only $.79 for every $1 a man makes. (Macionis, 2018). With military spouses earning even less, this raises the question of whether or not military spouses are explicitly being discriminated against when it comes to employment in today’s workforce.

Is It Discrimination?

As previously mentioned, 93% of active duty spouses are women, so my main focus is on the double discrimination of female military spouses. The old saying “a woman’s place is in the home,” may have rang true a century ago, but the times have changed. The societal scope of women’s lives no longer revolves around bearing and raising children. Women now on average have less than two children, half the number from a century ago. Technology has also impacted the lives of housewives by making innovations in home appliances, such as robotic vacuums and convection ovens, that clearly reduce the time needed for the housework. What are women doing with their extra time? Earning post-secondary degrees at a rate between 52-61% (depending on the level of education) and working for income outside the home at a rate of 57.6%. (Macionis, 2018). Military spouses as a whole are earning degrees at an even greater rate than the average civilian, with 34.4% of military spouses having attended some college and 40% holding a college degree, compared to the civilian, noninstitutionalized population at 25.7% and 29.7%, respectively. (The Council of Economic Advisers, 2018).

Unfortunately, we are still gendering work as “men’s work” or “women’s work”. Masculine work involves danger, physical strength or endurance, and leadership roles. Feminine work often takes form of support positions and jobs requiring nurturing skills. When you hear the titles of doctor, lawyer, or senator, society more frequently assigns these roles to men. When you hear the titles of nurse, teacher, or secretary, society more frequently assigns these roles to women. While discrimination based on gender is illegal by law, it is this de facto discrimination that goes under the table and leads to the construct of problems like the glass ceiling, a barrier that prevents minorities from moving upward in the workplace, and the discrepancy of military spouse representation in the workforce. (Macionis, 2018).

The fact of the matter is that this issue boils down to blatant discrimination existing against military spouses in today’s workforce. The average challenges of existing as part of a military family in the first place often ends up being dealt with most heavily by the non-active-duty spouse. All this moving around and changing education plans can lead to gaps and inconsistencies on a resume and can scream to hiring managers that, “This person could have to relocate at any second,” which might discourage companies from hiring military spouses in the first place. (Bogen, 2019). Despite claiming to be military-friendly businesses, employers who treat military spouses less favorably may find themselves in violation of Title VII, Section 1981, or various other anti-discrimination statutes. (Wellman, 2017). Military spouses have many competencies that their civilian counterparts do not exude. Military spouses are resilient, adaptable, and resourceful. Often asked to maintain sensitive information for security reasons, they frequently interact with VIP’s and the press. They also are confident multi-taskers, team-oriented, and frequently civically engaged. Finally, military spouses are ethnically diverse and socially aware, having experience with people from many different cultural, religious, and social backgrounds. (Bradbard & Armstrong, 2016)

An effective means of correcting this problem of underrepresentation in the workforce lies in amending the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA) to include spouses in employment protections for military members. (Wellman, 2017). Currently, only military members and veterans are protected under this law in a variety of ways, including absenteeism form work due to military duty, reemployment rights after military service, protection for disabled veterans’ reasonable accommodations, health and pension plan coverage, and more. (U.S. Department of Labor, 2019) Extending these protections to military spouses and expanding the act to include common areas of discrimination military spouses face would add an extra layer of protection for military spouses to continue their education, seek gainful employment where they are working at their level of qualifications, and overall participate more in today’s society.


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Wellman, T. E. (2017, May 21). Employment Discrimination Against Military Spouses: Illegal Contrary to Popular Belief and Practice. (Masters Thesis). Retrieved from https://scholarspace.library.gwu.edu/downloads/0c483j623?locale=en

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