I'm embarrassed to admit that when I first met my husband, one of the things I told him when we started getting more serious was that I wasn't cut out to be a military spouse. I was hyper-focused on my own job working in the NFL and I knew that picking up every few years to move for his career wouldn't be conducive to meeting my own professional goals.
When he got orders to Honolulu, Hawaii, I had a decision to make: job or partner?
I chose to give up a career in sports communications. Yes, I got to join the love of my life in Hawaii, but it didn't come without a stark reminder: Military spouses face an unemployment rate six times the national average.
The Chamber of Commerce reports that military spouses have faced an unemployment rate of 22%, while the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the national average sits at 3.6%, making service member spouses one of the highest unemployed demographics in the United States.
Military spouses face unique barriers to employment that include frequent, and often abrupt, moves with little or no control over location, educational gaps in employment history, professional licenses that cannot be transferred state-to-state and solo parenting during a deployment without access to reliable, or affordable, child care.
Blue Star Families, an organization that helps raise the nation’s awareness of the unique challenges of military family life, conducts an annual survey that provides a comprehensive understanding of what it means to serve as a military family, including spouse employment.
In the most recent 2021 findings, military spouse employment was a top-five military life issue for nearly half (47%) of active-duty spouse respondents and a quarter of active-duty service member respondents (25%).
While the unemployment rate for military spouses has stayed the same for decades, lawmakers are only recently taking initiative to spark change.
On March 1, 2023, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine introduced the "Military Spouse Hiring Act", legislation that would incentivize businesses to hire military spouses, alongside Senators John Boozman, Maggie Hassan and Mike Rounds.
“It is not only service members themselves who sacrifice to keep our country safe, secure, and free, but also their family members who, in supporting them, face a variety of challenges as well,” Senator Hassan said in the announcement. “It is common for military spouses to struggle to find employment due to relocation and other factors, which is why we are reintroducing this bipartisan bill to incentivize companies to hire them."
According to the Department of Labor, 92% of military spouses are women. Seven of them opened up to TODAY.com about the realities of trying to maintain a career as a military spouse.
"It was not feasible to pursue law"
Coming to the U.S. as a certified attorney from Kenya with a master's degree in international development management, it was a shock for Lydiah Owiti to find out that her law degree was essentially “useless” due to lack of recognition in America.
"I have had numerous challenges finding employment, mostly due to my foreign degrees, foreign work experience and references," Owiti, 39, tells TODAY.com.
Though she wished to continue practicing law in the U.S., Owiti quickly learned she would be unable to maintain her license due to constantly moving for her husband's job in the Army.
"It was not feasible to pursue law, knowing that each state had its own licensing requirements, which exists to date," she says.
Navigating her new reality as a military spouse was a tall order for Owiti. She tells TODAY.com that she spent thousands of dollars evaluating her foreign credentials anytime she applied for jobs, only to get rejections due to lack of local experience, local reference and sometimes missing deadlines because evaluations took long.
Having no luck securing employment, Owiti decided to go back to school to earn her second master's degree in project management. But it didn't solve her problems. The lack of social support, alongside raising two kids, moves, full-time studies and dwindling finances, weighed so heavily on the family that Owiti returned to Kenya to work. Since returning to the U.S. — and following her husband's retirement from the military — Owiti's focus has shifted.
"I (want to) share my story, advocate for, and raise awareness of the challenges of foreign-born military spouses," Owiti, who began a paid fellowship in the military and veteran service space in 2022, says.
"My husband’s career and my family have come before my career"
Rachael Amaral, 36, has both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in social work, but hasn't been able to work since 2021.
"My partner’s job has impacted my career by having to move every four years," Amaral, who has been married to Coast Guard Chief Ross Amaral for seven years, tells TODAY.com. "My husband’s career and my family have come before my career."
When the couple moved to New York, Amaral struggled to transfer her license.
"The week my New York Social Work license was approved, I found out I was pregnant," Amaral says.
Amaral tells TODAY.com she recently accept a per diem position.
"The pay rate is much lower," she says, adding that she was unable to accept a full-time position at a much higher rate. "Having two small children and being pregnant, a full-time (job) is not the best decision for our family right now."
"I traded an office with a view for a life of adventure when I married my soldier"
Kimberly Bacso tries to see the positives of military life, despite admitting her partner's job in the Army has impacted her career "significantly" over the last 22 years.
"When I quit work to join my husband at our first duty station —Stuttgart, Germany — I was four years out of undergrad, had a freshly-printed MBA diploma in hand, and held a managerial role as a senior accountant at a Fortune 100 company," Bacso tells TODAY.com.
Because of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) — an agreement between a host country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in that country — civilian spouses of Department of Defense personnel stationed overseas often face complete inability to work.
“I like to say that I traded an office with a view for a life of adventure when I married my soldier," she says.
Bacso, 47, has been forced to pivot in order to meet her professional own goals.
"Not able to secure full-time, meaningful work at overseas, remote and short-duration duty stations, I did the best I could to learn and gain experience through volunteer, part-time and entrepreneurial work," she says. "At one three-year assignment in Northern Virginia, I had enough time to work my way up from yoga teacher to studio assistant to studio manager."
After more than two decades of professional zigzagging, Bacso says she was able to secure a "coveted full-time remote job."
"It is a 100% remote role, which is key for me as an active-duty spouse, because I don’t have to quit when I move," she says. "I am thankful for a portable job that I can take with me when my husband retires, but at the same time, I’m hungry to fast-track my career, to learn fast and grow more so that I can reach my full potential before it is time to retire."
"They knew from the start that I was going to be gone in three years"
Tiffani Philips' first job after marrying her husband, a Coast Guardsman, in 2017 was at a family-owned pizzeria.
"They knew from the start that I was going to be gone in three years and my husband was deployed," she says, adding she was grateful they took a chance on her.
In her experience, Philips, who has an associate’s degree in social sciences, says disclosing she is a military spouse "turns off employers," a struggle that was magnified after she and her husband moved to Santa Rita, Guam.
"No one wanted to hire someone who was leaving in a set amount of time, and the jobs on this extremely small and limited island are very scarce," Philips, 24, tells TODAY.com.
Philips found a job working remotely from Guam for a woman-owned small business in Virginia Beach.
"It’s challenging having to work the hours in my time zone, so my career has been the night shift for the last two years," she says, adding that learning to work remotely came with its own challenges. "Not everyone is willing to give military spouses the chance they deserve, but when they do it’s such a gift."
"I’ve had to be creative with ways I can make myself stand out"
Air Force spouse Cameron Tuck tells TODAY.com that she is grateful for full-time remote work, but it sometimes requires a bit of ingenuity.
"I’ve had to be creative with ways I can make myself stand out since I can’t be as client facing as I would like to be," she says of her remote role as a portfolio manager for Regions Bank. "I volunteer for more projects or try to take other leadership roles with my more junior teammates."
Tuck says that while she has been fortunate to maintain steady employment since she graduated, permanent remote work comes with its own hardships.
"It is much harder to develop very strong relationships for me relative to my teammates because I’m remote," she explains. "Part of my job is also to be client facing, meaning taking meetings with clients of the bank. I am limited to taking those meetings virtually, if at all, since I am unable to travel for every in-person meeting."
And Tuck's employment position also comes with personal ramifications.
"I think this is true for anyone who is a remote worker, but especially so when you’ve moved around like we have — I get lonely," Tuck explains. "I spend a lot of time alone since I have a full-time job. It’s hard to make friends as a military spouse without children. It makes it even harder when you don’t live on base. Living off base is a personal choice — we’d rather get the feel of the city —but it does make it harder to make friends."
"There are military cultural expectations of spouses"
Heidi Evans' husband commissioned into the Navy one month before they got married 26 years ago. She says that moving, the unique challenges of military parenting, employer reluctance to hire someone who is “just going to move in a couple years" and lack of networking have all created barriers to employment for her, as well as other spouses she knows.
Evans, who holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism, tells TODAY.com that "there are military cultural expectations of spouses" that present additional hurdles not faced by civilian spouses.
"There is a — granted optional — expectation that spouses will handle the movers, address all the needs of children, attend military functions, host events for other military spouses, protect a deployed spouse from bad news if possible, and handle most emergencies, (as well as) volunteer," Evans, 52, says.
She recalled two particular instances where she was forced to choose between her profession and her husband.
"I declined attending a week-long professional retreat with my husband, because I had just taken a new job and had no vacation," she says. "I was the only no-show. Looking back, I should have attended, not only because it was a bad look, but because the event had marriage-strengthening activities. But there are few other professional worlds where one’s spouse is expected to take days off of work to attend a conference."
Another time, Evans, who has transitioned out of journalism, says she was marginalized due to her work.
"While I was working as a journalist, my husband’s (boss) refused to shake my hand or speak to me, saying I was 'that reporter wife' while he walked past me at a function," she says. "It was a long time ago, and it still makes me mad."
"So many have to choose between their career and their spouse, which is an un-winnable battle"
Rachel Vandernick tells TODAY.com her husband's role as a both a commercial and Air Guard pilot tends to dictate their schedule.
"It impacts the events we can go to, how, when or if we see family, when and where I work, when or if we take vacation, and how we divide our shared responsibilities," Vandernick, 30, says.
Vandernick, who is based in Philadelphia and has been married for three years, tells TODAY.com that it was the rhythm of her spouse's career that inspired her to start her own marketing business, even though she "didn’t have any aspirations of leaving a more traditional corporate role" before they met.
"I’ve been able to grow a thriving marketing business in part because I built it to be flexible with our known constraints," she says, adding that she can scale up her workload when her husband is gone, or scale back when he's home. "It’s a gift to be able to do that — so many have to choose between their career and their spouse, which is an un-winnable battle."