November is Military Family Appreciation Month. Of course, our nation owes military families a debt of gratitude: Their sacrifices and stressors should not go unnoticed. We do try to honor them, with thanks and praise, but during this month set aside to appreciate military families, we should consider practical ways we can do more to address the challenges they face. Fortunately, such efforts are underway.
In August, the White House hosted a listening session of military spouses, and the common themes were disruptions in career development and employment.
Ninety-two percent of military spouses are female, but the unemployment rate for military spouses (16 percent) is four times higher than the rate for all adult women in the U.S. (4 percent). About half of military spouses who are now working part-time report that they are underemployed; they would prefer full-time work.
Both the private sector and the public sector are making efforts to address the needs of military families.
First, because military life often requires moving from state to state, varying occupational licensing and a continuing education programs can keep military spouses from working, or slow them down and impose additional costs after a move. Unbelievably, today in the U.S., nearly one in three workers need a license to work. Scaling back these requirements, or offering state-to-state reciprocity, is one way governments can help. A trio of bills (the Restoring Board Immunity Act, the New HOPE Act, and the ALLOW Act) are currently under Congressional consideration. Each would encourage states to dial back oppressive licensing laws.
Second, private companies can work to foster more workplace flexibility. In industries where this is possible, employers should allow flexible hours, telecommuting and work-from-home options. These flexible workplace practices are helpful to any spouse (or single parent) who has to juggle the lion’s share of childcare duties. This particularly applies to military spouses.
The government can help to foster more workplace flexibility as well, simply by staying out of employment contracts and reducing regulations promulgated under the Fair Labor Standards Act that actually restrict employer’s ability to offer flexible arrangements. In May, the House passed the Working Families Flexibility Act, which would allow workers to elect to take comp time instead of overtime pay. This would be one good step toward greater flexibility. The bill is now with the Senate.
Finally, thirdly, many military spouses have found that the best way to become and stay employed is simply to work for oneself. Many run Etsy shops or otherwise operate their own small businesses. Pursuing a pro-growth economic policy, including tax reforms that make it easier to comply with the tax code and reducing the tax burden that small businesses face, would greatly help these military families. Congress is hard at work trying to pass such tax reforms now.
To their credit, there are already many entities – both public and private – who are working hard to provide opportunities for military spouses. The Small Business Administration has partnered with the Department of Defense to focus on economic opportunity for military spouses. The National Military Family Association and Military Spouse Employment Partnership also work toward this end, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce heads a project called Hiring Our Heroes, which is dedicated not just to helping veterans, but also military spouses, find jobs.
More good news: New technologies—and the growth of tech-related industries—are making more flexible, work-from-home positions available, and some companies, like Amazon, are committed to hiring military spouses in these jobs. These efforts are welcome and help combat the bias that some other employers may exhibit toward military spouses, whom they may see as a “flight risk” due to the frequent moving associated with military life.
Our economy is changing rapidly. Thanks to cultural and technological changes, the workplace can be more flexible than ever. By reducing barriers like occupational licenses and outdated labor and tax laws, we can do more to provide better economic opportunities for military families. Our debt to them can never be repaid – but fostering better employment options would be a good start.