Iris Collis, here with her husband, a retired intelligence commander in the Navy, and four children.
Source: Iris Collis
“When I met my husband, I didn’t realize that becoming a military spouse would mean I wouldn’t be able to pursue my career,” said Iris Collis, 46.
But with four children and five relocations over the course of a decade, Collis, who is a teacher by training, struggled to hold any job for longer than two years.
“Every time I tried to make some headway; it was time for the next move.”
Then came the pandemic. “With Covid, a lot of employment hopes ended, I had to make sure we looked after the kids during home schooling,” she said.
Military spouse unemployment — a long-standing problem for active-duty families — was only made worse by the pandemic’s child-care and remote school challenges.
First Lady Jill Biden recently referred to the problem as “a national security imperative.”
“The statistics are concerning,” she said at the Military Spouse Employment Partnership’s 2021 opening event in October.
“Almost 40% of military families said that they have considered leaving active-duty service because of challenges with spouse employment.”
In ordinary years, periods of deployment and the likelihood of relocation can make it more difficult for spouses to hold full-time jobs to supplement a military income.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, military spouse unemployment was more than seven times the national average and had been holding steady there for nearly a decade, according to the Department of Defense.
When the pandemic hit, balancing work, child-care, remote school and other obligations made it even harder for military spouses to hold a job.
Service members and their spouses ranked the issue among their top concerns for the first time, according to the Blue Star Families’ annual military family lifestyle survey.
In 2020, three-quarters of all military families said they couldn’t always find childcare, up from 68% in 2019, the Blue Star Families’ survey found.
Partners and spouses are “often operating as a solo parent,” said Jessica Strong, a co-director of applied research at Blue Star Families and a military spouse.
“The pandemic intensified that with classrooms shutting down. We have children schooling from home that wouldn’t normally need childcare.”
As a result, nearly half, or 42%, of spouses stopped working during Covid and roughly half of those working before the pandemic had to reduce their work hours.
This year, the spouse unemployment rate is expected to be as high as 35%.
“They’ll never catch up,” Strong said of the prolonged periods of unemployment.
Spouses, who are predominantly women, have to shoulder most of the burden.
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“Spouses, who are predominantly women, have to shoulder most of the burden,” added Tara Falcone, a certified financial planner and military spouse living in San Diego.
“The unfair burden placed on mothers,” she said, “that’s something that military spouses have juggled for a long time and it’s made more apparent because of Covid.”
In the Blue Star survey, military spouses cited the ability to work remotely as key. And, because of the pandemic, there are more remote opportunities than ever before.
Roughly two-thirds of employers now offer the opportunity to telework at least some of the time, according to a survey by consulting firm Mercer.
Of course, not all workers have the ability to work from home, even now. There’s a clear class divide between workers who can and cannot telework, studies show.
“A lot of military spouses are working in healthcare or childcare and there are less remote opportunities there,” Strong said.
On the upside, the number of free remote reskilling programs for military families has also increased.
“Covid has made the certifications even more popular,” said Nikki Paquette, a former Coast Guard technician and team captain of military enrollments at MedCerts, which specializes in career training in healthcare.
The programs are all online and self-guided, she said, which makes them particularly attractive for military spouses. Many other businesses and organizations, such as Microsoft, Salesforce and Booz Allen Hamilton, also offer career-driven training programs for military families at no cost.
Collis completed several courses in information technology, including certification programs in robotics and cyber security, through WithYouWithMe.
She was then hired full-time as an outreach coordinator in technology for Hiring our Heroes, an organization specifically aimed at connecting service members, veterans and military spouses with jobs.
Now Collis helps other spouses find employment while working remotely from her home outside of Washington, D.C. .
“Just being able to contribute to our family and find purpose, it’s been very rewarding.” Even better, “helping others that have been in my place,” she added.