For married service members, retention decisions can hinge on spouses’ satisfaction with the military lifestyle, and this can, in turn, be influenced by reliable access to paid employment.

“If the Army wanted you to have a family, it would have issued you one.” With hope, anyone still using that dated phrase does so in jest, because as of 2019, there are more family members of active-duty Soldiers than active-duty Soldiers. Of those, 240,127 are spouses. And if the Army and other services are serious about retaining talented soldiers, then it must take immediate action to accommodate and improve employment opportunities for Army spouses.

The 2019 Army People Strategy is clear, “The Army must make people the centerpiece of its competitive advantage by prioritizing human capital investment or risk losing its overmatch capabilities to potential adversaries.” This powerful statement directly connects the Army’s personnel management processes and systems to combat readiness. Clearly, retaining qualified people is a central initiative of the Strategy. For married service members, retention decisions can hinge on spouses’ satisfaction with the military lifestyle, and this can, in turn, be influenced by reliable access to paid employment.

Previous U.S. administrations have prioritized veteran and spouse employment initiatives with varying success. First ladies Michelle Obama and Jill Biden made great advances for military spouse employment by working to “streamline state licensing” and by encouraging private-sector commitments towards spouse employment. Yet these initiatives, like many before them, were focused on soliciting participation from or making changes to entities outside the Department of Defense (DoD). Without serious commitment to reforming DoD and service policies, can the Army or other services really argue they are prioritizing their human capital?

Previous articles at this site have highlighted the importance of and problems associated with spousal employment across the DoD. Paul Kearney, in his excellent article examining the negative effect of the “[Permanent Change of Station (PCS)] Penalty,” clearly established the growing importance of the Army spouse and argued for the creation of additional satellite campuses of the Command and General Staff College. Yet, this does not address the problem of spousal employment across the entire force and it is limited to officers’ spouses. Additional policies can and should be adopted to encourage and protect spousal employment opportunities for a broader range of the Army’s and other services’ families. These include three policy considerations to incentivize ‘family retention.’

First, the services should implement a policy to provide soldier stabilization options based upon a spouse’s employment. Second, a change in federal law could offer spouses who’ve moved under PCS orders a greater preferential hiring status when applying for DoD or other federal positions at their sponsor’s new duty station. Finally, the DoD should replace its current references to spouses as “dependents” with the term “family,” as the former is counterproductive.

Army Regulation 614-200, Enlisted Assignments and Utilization Management provides stabilization options for commanders and enlisted soldiers to postpone an upcoming PCS for a variety of reasons. Some of these options enable commanders to retain talented soldiers graduating from Ranger School, serving within the Old Guard or the White House, or pursuing certain professional qualifications. Yet, few stabilization options exist to protect Army family members from disruptive moves. A notable exception is that of allowing families with high school juniors or seniors to stay put through a student’s graduation. It’s past time that the Army and other services considered adding a stabilization option to protect spouses’ employment.

Military spouses hold jobs within the private sector and in federal, state, and local governments. It is difficult to find options that protect their access to myriad forms of employment without penalizing some employment choices or showing favoritism toward others. It is not the military’s place to solely protect “professional careers,” such as those in education or medicine, over hourly food service positions, for example. Any spouse in the workforce should have the opportunity to benefit from these policies, regardless of occupation. Commitment to an employer or a significant financial investment in a career field can be an effective discriminator to evaluate stabilization opportunities. The DoD should study at least three stabilization proposals.

The first proposal provides stabilization for spouses who are not yet vested in defined benefit plans, such as a 401k or other pension plan, and who are within 24 months of vesting. Employers who contribute matching funds to retirement plans do so according to a schedule, either graduated or ‘cliff-based.’ In the private sector, five to seven years is needed before an employee becomes fully vested in their benefits plan. Some employers allow earlier vesting timelines. Unfortunately, government employers are exempt from the five to seven-year requirements, which explains the DoD’s 20-year plan. Leaving an employer before partial or complete vestment can result in a loss of thousands to tens of thousands of dollars in retirement income. Service members should only be stabilized for the minimum period of time required to allow their spouses to become partially or fully vested.

The second proposal would allow spouses who are within 24 months of completing tuition repayment programs to be stabilized until completing their program. A sample program of this type, the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program, administered by the Department of Education, requires five consecutive years of teaching full-time in an approved low-income school. The five consecutive year requirement is onerous for a military spouse, especially if the PCS destination does not have any open positions at qualifying schools. Many more programs exist for other career fields across the federal, state, local, and private sectors. This stabilization option should be written broadly enough to accommodate a wide range of acceptable programs. Again, service members should only be stabilized for the minimum period of time required to allow their spouses to complete such commitments.

In fact, in most situations, a military spouse is given less preferential priority than a veteran. Instead, military spouses should be given greater preferential priority over veterans for applicable positions.

Third and last among stabilization proposals, spouses attending or selected to attend career-enhancing programs through their employers should be considered for stabilization. Programs like management training are widespread across government and private sectors and can provide permanent credentials for future employment. Credentialing opportunities exist through employers of all sorts. For example, local banks commonly send employees to obtain licensure as mortgage brokers and will prioritize hiring licensed applicants. This option has multiple benefits. It increases the desirability of hiring military spouses by promoting credentialing opportunities and simultaneously limits an employer’s uncertainty and concerns regarding a future PCS. Finally, whereas the previous two options are presented as 24-month stabilizations, this option could be as short as six months, or until the next assignment cycle, making it much less restrictive on Human Resources Command.

A second policy recommendation for consideration is a modification to the DoD’s Military Spouse Preference (MSP) program. Under the Military Family Act of 1985, Public Law 99-145, military spouses will receive preferential consideration for hiring to both Appropriated Fund (GS-15 and below) and Non-Appropriated Fund (NF-3 and below) positions within the DoD. However, military spouses must still often compete for jobs against other applicants within preferential categories, such as veterans. In fact, in most situations, a military spouse is given less preferential priority than a veteran. Instead, military spouses should be given greater preferential priority over veterans for applicable positions. While this would likely upset veterans, we should recognize that veterans are former employees who can seek employment anywhere whereas military spouses do not have that luxury. Spouses have greater constraints than veterans when seeking employment and should receive priority.

The third and final policy recommendation is to change the official designation of the military family members from “dependents” to “family” in official literature. By framing spouses as “dependents,” the military has biased its own understanding of the spousal employment problem: jobs are a luxury for “dependents” because the military expects service members to provide for their families’ material needs. While the military provides limited added financial compensation for its members with family, it is not close to equaling a second income. Further, promoting spouse employment addresses more retention factors than just financial considerations. Prejudicially mischaracterizing spouses as “dependents” encourages the military to minimize them, their needs, and therefore the needs of families.

While not all military spouses are driven to pursue a career, Kearney’s earlier article showed that more military spouses are seeking paid employment than ever before. Studies in occupational health psychology prove that periods of unemployment, or of being ‘without purpose,’ are detrimental to a person’s wellbeing. Further studies highlight the importance of having a strong sense of self-worth. Military spouses are, unsurprisingly, human just like the rest of us. They need, want, and must feel accomplished in their own right. For a variety of reasons, not all spouses seek paid employment. Yet, as the number of employment-seeking spouses rises this issue will become increasingly important. Classifying military spouses as “dependents” is misguided and degrading to those we rely on.

Ultimately, by acknowledging and protecting paid spouse employment, the military will increase personnel retention rates in two ways. First, consistently-employed spouses bring in additional income to their household, contributing to greater standards of living and fewer financial stressors—addressing two factors that hurt retention. Second, military spouses will have opportunities to prioritize themselves, positively affecting their wellbeing and reducing how often families must choose between careers. These policies would entail varying amounts of financial and personnel-based costs but, would address multiple negative retention factors and, in-turn, result in increased retention rates.

There will remain occasions when a family must choose to prioritize one spouse’s career. That decision will be difficult and emotional. The goal of these recommendations is to increase specifically the Army’s personnel retention rates by creating a permissible environment for paid spouse employment and therein improve retention rates. Military personnel systems and policies should account for and empower military spouses at every reasonable opportunity. Doing so is in keeping with the tenets of the Army’s People Strategy and will ensure our volunteer forces across the Joint Force remain ready to fight tonight.

MAJ Gordon D. Rutledge is an active-duty U.S. Army officer and military strategist. He is a graduate of Michigan Technological University and The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. where he was an avid proponent of the Army Combat Fitness Test, greatly disappointing at least two of his professors.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Daniel Boothed

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9 Comments

  1. I’ve served on actice duty for over 11 years. In that time I’ve concluded the Army needs to reform how it accommodates spouses if it is committed to retaining talent. My wife holds three degrees, to include a Master’s, and made efforts to start a career at our first assignment. She found a job in her chosen career field when we were about a year from our next permanent change of station. She eventually accepted that establishing herself in a career field was infeasible while PCSing on an average rate of every two years.

    She since periodically reminded me that she loves me, but was forced to choose between a career or myself. She says she does not regret her decision to PCS with me every time, but she makes it clear that she wants a career when we stop PCSing. In other words, she was was forced to set her own aspirations aside to remain with me.

    This is not to say she’s given up on everything. She started her own photography and crafting business, which I’ve noticed seems to be a thing with military spouses out of necessity. However, a two year assignment cycle means she moves just as she gets established with a customer base. Once agian, this does not allow her to generate her own income.

    Finances are the number one stressor for couples. The Army’s use of the term dependent only adds friction to this stressor as spouses are continously reminded of there financial dependence on their Soldier. I suspect marital issues regarding finances will decrease if the Army can find a way to promote spousal employment for those who want to generate their own income.

    The Army needs to reform how it accommodates spouses if it is committed to retaining talent. I hope this becomes a topic further explored in a serious effort. This is a great article to develop options for spouses. I know talented leaders who chose their family over their careers. The Army needs to take serious measures to make spouses a priority, “or risk losing its overmatch capabilities.”

  2. If dependable childcare was thrown into that mix, it would make the article/theory even better.
    Also, to back up the “dependent” label- There are a pathetic number of soldiers who keep “their” money to themselves.
    When said dependent needs/wants a job they have a hard time getting one due to being a milspo. If they do get hired it’s likely a minimum wage job that doesn’t cover the cost of reliable childcare &/or doesn’t outweigh the purpose of the job.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, it’s greatly appreciated! I absolutely agree, access to affordable quality childcare is a major hurdle for our families.

  3. What the what? A military spouse should be given a higher priority than a military veteran? Really?

    1. My article values both veterans and spouses. It makes the argument that spouses have less flexibility in choosing where to live and work than veterans. Because of that, they should receive higher preference.

  4. Your view of the military is myopic. You have neglected to include the National Guard and the Reserves. Over the past 20 years, have seen more deployments than any family could have ever expected. Failure to include them in the analysis and planning of this article is a major oversight.

    1. You bring up a good point but, writing about one issue doesn’t detract from another. Let’s prop each other up instead of bringing each other down.

  5. As a spouse of an active duty service member who is now staring down a 12-year employment gap, this is a very real issue.

    I know how lucky I am that we were able to make a single income work while we raised our family, but it doesn’t detract from the frustration and outright anger I have felt toward the regiment. Especially when my husband has discussed his career goals with higher, specifically stating that he wanted X or Y possible future career path because he wanted to make sure I had a chance to get back to my career. He was told that isn’t a valid factor for making his own career decisions.

    Regardless of what policy changes are agreed upon, the problem is that the people down the pipeline who actually make these decisions regarding soldiers’ careers still only see the needs of the force and neglects to see any of the people in the SM’s household as actual people. Policy might slowly be moving forward, but branch and command are still firmly entrenched in acting like this is the 1950s. This attitude can already be clearly illustrated via the guidance to reduce the amount of PCS moves for service members and their families. In practice, there has been a negligible change at best, if any.

    If we expect future policy changes to work as intended, those making the decisions for manning need to be on board or held accountable.

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