June 14, 2017

By: Amy Bushatz

A Trump administration official on Wednesday said decreasing military spouse unemployment is among President Donald Trump’s priorities for improving the U.S. economy.

“We at the White House know the service and the sacrifice that each of you is putting towards the betterment of your nation,” Kellyanne Conway, a senior counselor to the president, said at a military spouse hiring summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“We also know many of our military spouses across the country are in search of employment,” she added. “This is an issue that is under active examination and search for solutions in this administration.”

Conway, who said spouse employment falls under her portfolio, said the administration is particularly interested in continuing public-private partnerships to help expand spouse employment opportunities and working with states to decrease the financial burden of transferring professional licenses over state borders.

“We don’t want military families to decide if they have $500 to put towards another license in a different state or $500 to put towards groceries or other necessities that month,” she said. “We would like to continue to look towards a way to make sure those choices are not so difficult.”

Conway spoke at a Military Spouse Employment Summit hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Transferring a professional license to a new state during a military move can be time consuming and expensive.

Although all 50 states and the District of Columbia have spouse license portability laws aimed at making transfers easier, the laws are not consistent and many only apply to specific career fields.

For example, teachers and attorneys are often excluded from the rules. And although federal officials can work to push states to adopt new rules, the decision to do so is ultimately up to the state lawmakers.

Meanwhile, military spouses remain unemployed at four times the rate of their civilian counterparts, with more than a quarter who took a recent survey working part-time or multiple jobs, according to a new U.S. Chamber Foundation report released at the summit.

The unemployment rate of military spouses, which was 23 percent in 2015, according to Defense Department statistics, has dropped to 16 percent, according to the Department of Labor.

But that rate is still four times that adult female Americans, according to the U.S. Chamber Foundation report, which is based on a survey of 1,200 active duty spouses or spouses of veterans who recently left the military.

“Our spouses live in a perpetual recession, so while the economy isn’t in recession, as a whole we have some space to move for spouses,” said Adam Jones, an economist at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, who presented the finding at the event. “Clearly there’s an opportunity here to do something.”

Of the employed spouses surveyed, more than a quarter said they are working part time, while half of those said they would prefer full time work. More than 18 percent said are in a seasonal or part time job, and 71 percent said they are overeducated for their current job. Almost half said they took a pay cut to accept their current jobs. Over 88 percent said they have at least some post-high school education.

Many military spouses experience job hunt and employment woes due to frequent moves or getting stationed far from large cities in areas with slim job prospects. More than 65 percent of those surveyed had to quit their jobs for a military move. Nearly two-thirds of those needed more than four months to find new ones, and a quarter needed more than a year, the report says.

Spouse employment challenges also hurt military retention, the survey found. Some 43 percent of spouses surveyed said their employment ranked between an 8 and 10 — with 10 being the most important — as a factor on deciding whether to leave the military.

“That’s kind of shocking,” Jill Biden, spouse of former Vice President Joe Biden who helped lead a White House military spouse hiring program during the Obama administration, said at the event.

“If we hope to recruit and retain the best service members to build the best fighting force in the world, then we must address this military spouse employment issue,” she said. “This is critical to our troops, to our military strategy … it’s simply unacceptable.”

There are currently over 641,000 military spouses, according to the Pentagon, with over 92 percent of those female and almost half 30 years old or older. Over 40 percent of military spouses have children, and over 70 percent of those have children 11 years old or younger.

The Pentagon has programs to help military spouses find employment, including a job board through the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) and education, resume and career support through the Spouse Education and Career Support program. Military spouse employment is also a key component in the department’s offerings that help military families transition out of military life.