The Realities of Military Spouse Unemployment

Written by Tessarose Brown


Military life is hard. While service members know that no matter where they are sent, they will have a job, the same cannot be said for their spouses. The 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report (the largest annual study of military families, conducted by Blue Star Families) found that 20% of military spouses in the labor force are unemployed and actively seeking work.1

I didn’t realize how hard it would be to find a job after our first PCS move. Not only was it difficult to find a job, but when I did, my childcare fell through. We quickly went from being a two income family to one. I never intended to be a stay-at-home mom, but I felt like I had no choice.

I put out a call on social media asking what military spouses have struggled with in regards to unemployment. While the answers weren’t shocking to me, they might be to civilians. The main issues contributing to the pervasive military spouse unemployment issue seem to be the accessibility and affordability of childcare and the difficulty of finding career-appropriate jobs after a permanent change of station (PCS) move — I know I face those challenges and, clearly, I’m not alone.

Here are some of the realities of military spouse unemployment as seen through my eyes and those of the spouses who shared why they’re currently unemployed:


Military Spouses Want To Work

A military spouse’s job search can be a long and arduous process, but surveys have shown that spouses want to work. 42% of military spouses reported that they are not in the labor force but are looking for employment.1 Military spouses are often well-educated and highly qualified for a range of careers, but frequent moves make it difficult for them to stay on a consistent career path. I personally have a college degree and six years of experience in child and youth development, yet have found it difficult to have career continuity due to our military lifestyle.

“My last job I was making $11/hr as an office manager and I have a bachelor’s degree. I was running the business. I had to quit when I had my son because I couldn’t afford childcare.” — A real-life Army spouse

The Women’s Bureau reports that 89% of military spouses have some college, 30% have a four year college degree, and 15% have an advanced degree.2 Switching jobs leaves little room for professional growth or establishment within a company. And, unfortunately, some employers will even shy away from hiring military spouses because they know they will eventually have to leave.


Inadequate and Unaffordable Childcare

Taking care of military families is essential to mission readiness! After all, when a military member knows their family is taken care of, they can focus on serving and protecting our country. However, one aspect of taking care of military families’ needs that seems to be overlooked is adequate and affordable childcare. Since appropriate childcare is frequently not available, military spouses are often unable to even begin looking for a new job after a recent PCS move, and instead, must stay home to care for their children.

“There’s no point in working when my whole paycheck is just going to go to childcare.” — A real-life Air Force spouse

In addition to difficulties with finding childcare, paying for it is an expense that must be taken into account. Child Care Aware of America reports that the average cost of childcare is over $10,000 per year, and a third of active duty spouses reported the expense of childcare as the reason they are not in the workforce.3 The pandemic only exacerbated this issue.


Frequent and Last-Minute Permanent PCS

Because military families move so often, it can be extremely difficult for spouses to find work and sustain their careers. The hiring process can be lengthy and by the time spouses gain employment, they may be only a year or two out from another PCS. This makes it difficult for spouses to establish themselves in their desired career field or organization. After my first PCS move, it took over a year to find, apply, and accept a job offer that is worth the childcare cost. However, even after accepting the position, the hiring and intake process has taken nearly three months. That’s a total of 15 months from the start of my job search to my first day of work.

“I have a master’s degree in accounting and my CPA license. I was unemployed in Germany for 5 years. I’m currently employed but am 5 years behind my peers.” — A real-life Army spouse

While there are some jobs available that have a more expedient hiring process, they’re often not ideal for military life and/or do not reflect the level of experience and education of the applicant. This means that even if they are able to find a job, military spouses frequently end up in underpaid or unfulfilling positions for much of their career. For example, a spouse with a bachelor’s degree in an IT field may be forced to take a minimum wage IT position just to make ends meet.

“I am a teacher and have an MA ED and national board certification. It took 6 months to get a job at all. The first job I got was a part time aid/lunch monitor at school. I made about $800 a month and almost $500 of that went to daycare. The best job I could get was a preschool room in a daycare. I made about half of what I make as a teacher and had to work 12 months instead of only 10.” — A real-life Army spouse

Military spouse unemployment after a PCS can be especially prevalent for spouses who have professional careers that require licensure by state. The recertification process can be lengthy as well as an additional cost to families. In fact, 34% of military spouses work in a profession requiring licensing or certification — primarily in the health and education-related fields.4 A 2019 Department of Defense survey found that one in five military spouses who work in a licensed profession waited 10 months or more to receive their credential after a move.5


The Negative Impact of Military Spouse Unemployment

The impact of being an unemployed military spouse is different for everyone. However, in my experience and in speaking with other military spouses, I found that there are common themes such as: insufficient income and mental and physical health issues.


Insufficient Income

Military spouse unemployment can lead to an increased worry regarding finances. The soaring cost of goods and gas puts strain on young military families who have to rely on only one income. This strain can even lead to the family having to choose whether they pay bills or buy food.

Additionally, military spouse unemployment after a PCS can cause military families to incur debt due to costs associated with a PCS — including hotel stays, purchasing new household items, and replacing broken furniture.

“As a family who had significant debt prior to PCSing to our new installation, being unemployed has been an additional stressor for our family. We’ve had to be creative in paying bills and finding resources for living expenses including using our local food pantry at ASYMCA.” — A real-life Army spouse


Mental and Physical Health Issues

Financial hardship due to military spouse unemployment can undoubtedly play a role in impacting a military spouse’s mental health. So much of our self worth and self esteem comes from the contributions we make to our community and family. For spouses who want and need to work, unemployment and underemployment can have a devastating effect on their mental and physical health.

“I struggle with self esteem and mental health because I can’t work. I feel like I should help financially but I can’t, so it makes me feel horrible.” — A real-life Army spouse

Unemployment also puts spouses at risk of increased substance abuse, a more sedentary lifestyle, insufficient adult interactions, and feelings of inadequacy and helplessness. Any of these issues could lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide.

“So far, in the 14 years of being a military spouse, I have yet to find good employment. There are days I just want to give up and accept that I will always be chronically underemployed/unemployed as long as my service member is in the military.” — A real-life Army spouse


No Military Family Left Behind

Military spouse unemployment is an ongoing problem that a lot of people have little to no insight into — unless you’re in the military, of course. But military spouses are educated, have job experience, and, most importantly, want to work. We’re a community of dedicated individuals and a largely untapped pool of incredible talent and knowledge. To all the military spouses out there who are currently underemployed or unemployed, I hope this article sheds light on what we go through each and every day to support our service members as they serve our country.

The ASYMCA understands the complexities and real-life struggles that many military families face, and has many programs to ensure that no military family is left behind.

You can help support military families by donating to the ASYMCA today.


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