There are nearly 1.3 million active service members in the American military. Their valuable service plays a vital role, but often, their spouses face challenges securing employment. A 2018 report from Blue Star Families found one of the top issues for military spouses is military spouse employment, with 45% citing it as an issue. In fact, one in four military spouses is unemployed and looking for work.
“I’ve lost track of how many fellow military spouses have told me they abandoned careers they loved and were proud of solely because of the obstacles the military life presented,” writes journalist and military spouse Julie Bogen in The Atlantic.
There are a variety of challenges to military spouse employment.
- Lack of education: According to the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, only 25% of military spouses have a bachelor’s degree and 10% have an advanced degree.
- Changing locations: The Military Spouse Employment Partnership reports military families move 14% more frequently than civilian families. Securing steady employment when you’re constantly moving is more difficult.
- Costs of going back to school: The Blue Star Families report found 62% of military families experienced stress due to their current financial situation, and for 52%, spouse un/underemployment was the top financial obstacle. Financial stress makes it more difficult to pay for school, while un/underemployment contributes to financial stress.
- Caring for children: Approximately 56% of service members are married, and 39% of active duty members who are married have children, according to America’s Promise. When a military service member is deployed, the spouse takes on childcare duties that can cut into employment and/or going back to school.
Choosing the right career
The first step to take before going back to work is to figure out a career path. Your interests, education, strengths and living situation will factor in to what constitutes a meaningful career for you. Consider:
- Your passion: Typically, an employee spends 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. You want to work at a job that makes you happy and enables you to work on what you’re interested in.
- Your education: Look at education requirements for your ideal jobs. You may already have the background to pursue certain roles, or you may need to further your education.
- Your strengths: A 2019 report by Gallup found employees who use their strengths are more engaged and have a better employee experience. You can take an online assessment, like the Clifton StrengthsFinder, to discover what your strengths are.
- Your living situation: With the frequency of moving for military families, remote work may be an ideal solution. In 2018, 70% of people around the world worked remotely at least once a week, and as of 2019, remote work has grown 159% since 2005.
If you’re interested in remote work but aren’t sure where to start, some popular remote jobs to consider are:
- Web or graphic designer
- Teacher or tutor
- Social media manager
- Crowdsourcing manager
- Virtual assistant
- Email marketer
- Video creator
- Freelance writer
- Search engine optimization consultant
- Customer service manager
- Android or iPhone developer
It’s possible to make a salary of $100,000 or more a year doing remote work. A 2019 report by CNBC lists the following examples of high-paying remote work for full-time (40 hours/per week) employees.
- Psychiatrist: $217,265/year
- Medical director: $135,012/year
- Data scientist: $129,806/year
- Software engineer: $107,273/year
- Actuarial analyst: $102,734/year
- Senior business analyst: $102,936/year
- Senior product manager: $119,289/year
- UX architect: $117,290/year
- Senior information security consultant: $123,039/year
Lisette Sutherland, author of Work Together Anywhere and director of Collaboration Superpowers, told CNBC in order to secure and maintain remote work, “you need to be able to quantify what you do, show your productivity and how it will improve by working remotely.”
Military spouse employment programs
Once you’ve decided on a career path and are ready to begin your search, there are programs to help military spouses find employment. Here are some examples.
- Military Spouse Employment Partnership: This job bank lists more than 370,000 active jobs for military spouses.
- American Job Centers: These nationwide job resource centers provide job search workshops, free computer access and more.
- Boots to Business: The Office of Veterans Business Development provides this entrepreneurial education and training program, open to military spouses interested in building their own businesses.
- Hire Heroes USA: Here you can find free career services, a job bank and resources for military spouses looking for a job.
- Military Spouse Corporate Career Network: This network includes a military-dedicated job bank.
You can also connect with a recruiter in the industry you want to pursue. Recruiters are paid by companies to find talented fits for roles, including remote positions. You can tell a recruiter about your experience and the exact kind of job you want, and the recruiter will send you leads for free.
How to finance going back to school
If your desired career path requires going back to school, you may be wondering how to pay for it. From 2008 to 2018, the average tuition costs at four-year public colleges increased by 37%, CNBC reports.
But don’t get discouraged. As mentioned, higher education is directly linked to higher salaries, which can make school worth it over time.
There are programs designed specifically for military spouses to help with college financing. These include:
- The Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA) Program: This employment assistance program gives up to $4,000 of financial aid to military spouses who qualify to study for a certification, license or associate’s degree in a career occupation and field that is portable.
- Military offers at online colleges and universities: MilitaryBenefits provides a list of colleges that offer programs for military spouses. One example is California Miramar University, a college that offers support to military spouses.
- Post 9/11 GI Bill: Service members who do not use their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits or who use only a portion of the benefits are able to transfer them to their spouse.
- Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance program: The Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) program offers training and educational opportunities to eligible dependents of military veterans who are totally and permanently disabled because of a service-related condition or dependents of veterans who passed away while on active duty or because of a service-related occurrence.
- Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): The FAFSA is a free form military spouses can fill out to become eligible for college financial aid. Military spouses who complete the FAFSA may be eligible for grants, which do not have to be paid back.
- Scholarships for military spouses: Filling out the FAFSA also makes military spouses eligible for scholarships. Military One Source has a list of education assistance programs, military spouse scholarship programs and more.
If special programs are not available or do not apply to you, there are other ways to finance going back to school. These include:
- Personal loans: Personal loans must be repaid with interest. Typically, personal loans do not require putting down collateral to qualify. You’ll have a loan with a fixed interest rate and fixed monthly payment, so you can budget accordingly. A disadvantage of personal loans is that you will have to pay interest on top of what you borrow. But a personal loan is a way to get the money you need now, so you can work toward a stronger financial future through education.
- Student loans: Student loans are dispersed solely to cover educational costs. Typically, they come with lower interest rates than personal loans. Also, most student loans don’t require a credit check. Student loans are based on financial need, while personal loans are not.
- Credit cards: If you need money to pay for supplies and books, you can apply for credit cards. Credit cards give you a line of credit you can borrow from. You must repay what you borrow, sometimes with interest, depending on how soon you can cover your payment. Credit cards provide a way to access cash quickly but may impact your credit score.
Each school you're considering has a team of financial advisers. Usually, some specialize in working with veterans and military families, so you can learn what options are available to you. You can also call Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 to speak with an education consultant from the Military Spouse Employment Partnership. The consultant may be able to recommend schools and financial aid programs based on what you’re interested in.
How to pay for childcare when you’re a military spouse going back to school
If you have children and are going back to school, you will need childcare. Even if you're studying college online, you need to be able to focus, study and attend online classes without distractions. If you’re attending nighttime classes or weekend classes, your childcare needs may be different compared to the typical Monday-through-Friday offerings. According to the Blue Star Family report, 78% of military spouse caregivers need childcare, but 72% of families cannot obtain reliable childcare.
There are affordable childcare options available for military families in need. Military.com lists childcare resources for military families, with many options for free or reduced costs. There are also childcare fee assistance programs offered by the Department of Defense, based on military branch.
If you need additional assistance paying for childcare for your military family, you have some options, similar to paying for school.
- Credit cards: Credit cards give you instant access to a line of credit, sometimes more than $10,000, that you can use to pay for personal expenses. You may be approved for several credit cards at once, which can increase the amount of cash you can access. While the access to quick cash is a benefit, you must make on-time credit card payments in order to avoid fees. Credit cards require interest for charges that aren’t paid in full at a specific time. This can lead to fees adding up quickly and increased credit card debt. When using credit cards, you’ll want to have a plan in place to pay them off expediently, and ensure you aren't negatively impacting your credit score.
- Personal loans: Personal loans can help cover the cost of childcare. Personal loans provide you with quick cash and typically have lower interest rates compared to credit cards. Many people take out a personal loan to consolidate credit card debt for this reason. However, personal loans do require interest to be paid. Fixed payments on a set schedule can make personal loan payments manageable. You still need to have a plan in place to make your loan payments, including any fees.
ChildCare.gov lists other financial assistance programs for families needing funds to pay for childcare. These include:
- Government programs
- Childcare subsidies: Also called fee assistance and voucher programs, childcare subsidies are funds the federal government sends states to help low-income families pay for childcare, so they can attend school or work. Each state has different eligibility requirements.
- Head Start and Early Head Start: These programs are available to low-income families and families meeting other eligibility requirements. They prepare children to start school and include child development support services.
- State-funded pre-kindergarten: There are state pre-kindergarten programs for children ages three to five, with some at low or no cost for eligible families.
- School-related programs: Some colleges and universities offer discounted childcare to students.
- Local and provider-specific assistance and discounts: Some childcare providers will offer discounts to military families. Some provide a sliding fee scale based on income. You may also be able to find assistance and scholarships for certain childcare providers, as well as sibling discounts.
- Tax credits: You may be eligible for the child and dependent care tax credit if you’re working or looking for work while going to school. The earned income tax credit helps people with moderate to low incomes get a refund for childcare.
There are more than 800 Department of Defense Child Development Centers (CDCs) on military installations around the globe. Some are open 24 hours a day. There are also in-home childcare options for military families. SitterCity.com and Care.com provide discounts for military families, as well.
Advice from military spouses who have been there
Balancing your life as a military spouse and career-minded individual (and perhaps a parent) has its challenges. Take it from these military spouses who have achieved school and career success.
Julie Provost, Army spouse and founder of Soldier’s Wife, Crazy Life: “You may have started college when you were younger, then life happened, and you decided to do something else. It has been a few years, and now you want to go back. Now is a perfect time to do so. See what colleges are in your local area. I am a big fan of community colleges. You can check out what degree programs they have and go from there. Online programs are also a good idea and allow you more flexibility during military life.”
Michelle Still Mehta, PhD, Air Force spouse and author of Silent Sacrifice on the Homefront: “Choose a career path that is realistically sustainable and compatible with military life. Here is where a certain amount of flexibility may come into play. Can you find a career that suits you while still being portable enough to carry with you? The most successful military spouses I know are those who have broken the connection between employment and geography. Either they can work virtually or take their employment with them at each new assignment.”
Marla Bautista, Army spouse and author of My Thoughts Abandoned: “[For college,] you may be eligible for Pell Grants, Army Emergency Relief (AER) grants, MyCAA funds, subsidized and unsubsidized loans or scholarships…[With scholarships], all you have to do is meet the organization’s requirements, provide previous educational documentation and possibly complete an essay or an interview. Simple enough, right?”
Sue Hopping, Air Force spouse and founder of the National Military Spouse Network: “Always be prepared and have your resume ready. You never know when an opportunity will present itself. This is just as relevant for volunteers and entrepreneurs as it is for job seekers and those who are already employed.”
PJ Feinstein, Air Force spouse and freelance writer: “Reach out for assistance. Each military service offers resources to help spouses find employment on- and off-base. It’s just a matter of knowing where you should go, and you can often find this out during the intake process when your family arrives at a new base or from the spouse’s club at your significant other’s assigned unit.”
You can connect with other military spouses in your area to learn what worked for them and gain new leads. Also, volunteering while you prepare for school or a job search is a way to get involved with your community and make new connections that can lead to personal and professional growth.