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Army spouses battle high unemployment

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Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2012 12:00 pm

By Colleen Flaherty

Killeen Daily Herald

When Destiny Roberts came to Fort Hood last year with her husband, a junior enlisted soldier now with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, she imagined she would find a job comparable to the one she held back home in Tennessee.

The gig at a carpeting manufacturer wasn't a "great job," she said, but with a base salary of $9 an hour and plenty of opportunities for overtime, it was more than enough to help support her family of four.

But upon arrival in Central Texas, Roberts said she found no work - not even in day care, retail or banking, all industries in which she had experience.

The unemployment took a toll on the family's finances. "On the extra stuff, you have to pinch your pennies. I buy a lot of used clothing for the kids and myself, and you have to learn to cut corners and coupons and not eat out and stuff like that. You can live on your soldier's income; it's just a lot tighter."

Worse than the loss of income, Roberts, 30, felt isolated.

"When you move to a new place and you don't know anyone, it's not having a reason to get out of the house as much as the money (that's worst)," she said. "When you don't have as much of purpose, and you don't have somewhere to go everyday, it gets boring."

Overcoming misconceptions

With a national unemployment rate of 26 percent, according to Defense Department figures, military spouses across the country share experiences similar to Roberts'.

Between decreased networking opportunities with living in a new area, frequent moves and the havoc they can wreak on career progression or education, and potential discrimination from employers who may think military spouses aren't good hires, their unemployment rate stands at triple the national average.

And the figure could be higher; unemployment rates don't account for workers who have settled for part-time work instead of full-time work or discouraged job-seekers who have stopped looking after six months.

"She or he can have a resume that looks like a patchwork quilt, and (employers) can be reluctant to see that spouse as a valued employee," said Laura Dempsey, director of military spouse employment programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes initiative.

This happens despite the fact that military spouses are, on average, more educated and volunteer-oriented than the average American; 85 percent have some college education and 25 percent have bachelor's degrees, said Dempsey adding that they volunteer at four times the national average.

Dempsey is personally connected to her work. She met her husband, an infantry officer, when she was finishing law school at the University of Michigan in the mid-1990s. During the first six years of her marriage, she took and passed four different states' bar exams to keep up with her moves.

"It was very hard financially and frustrating, and it led me to the work I'm doing now," said Dempsey, who is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Burden of red tape

Licensing and certification from state to state is another obstacle for military spouses, said Jerry Haisler, director of the Central Texas Workforce Centers, which administers the Talent Program and MyCAA (Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts).

These federally-funded programs assist military spouses with job-seeking, career training and education. Some spouses of junior-enlisted soldiers, officers and warrant officers qualify for up to $4,000 in tuition assistance. Nearly 3,000 spouses have received some kind of assistance through the programs since 2003.

"Unfortunately, there's not reciprocity arranged between states," said Haisler. For example, a nurse or teacher licensed in one state may not be licensed to practice in Texas without taking additional tests or meeting other requirements, sometimes at great cost.

About 35 percent of working military spouses require licenses or certification for their professions, according to a Defense Department report published last month. Military spouses also are 10 times more likely to have moved across state lines in the last year than their civilian counterparts.

The report also found a spouse's employment plays a "key role" in the financial and personal well-being of military families, and his or her job satisfaction is an "important component" of the service member's retention. The report also recommends ways to streamline certification for military spouses across state lines.

A spouse's struggle can be hard even for the military partner to understand. Marie Decindio, lead employment specialist at Fort Hood's Army Community Service Employment Readiness Branch, said it was only after she retired from the military and began working with military spouses that she truly began to appreciate the sacrifices of her civilian husband.

When his position at a U.S. military installation was once a casualty to a reduction-in-force, she said: "Boy, was there heck to pay at my house. (But) I didn't understand that frustration."

Through her work at the branch, Decindio sees spouses searching for work every day. In addition to helping them with career counseling, resumes and interview skills, she advises them to devote at least 25 hours a week to their job hunts and to meet at least 600 people in the community, giving short "elevator speeches" about their talents and experience. Volunteering, she said, also is a great way to meet people and gain experience.

From national to local

In late March, the national Hiring Our Heroes job fair is coming to Fort Hood, with some 500 people already signed up to attend.

The 80-employer fair, geared toward military spouses, is sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Capital One and the Fort Hood Officers' Spouses Club. The program's inaugural fair in Washington, D.C., drew 1,300 job-seekers in January.

Dempsey, director of spouse program, said she hopes to hold 20 such job fairs across the country this year. "(We're) focusing on job stability and upward mobility and targeting employers who have an interest in hiring military spouses."

And such employers exist; Aegis call center in Killeen has announced its client, Orbitz Worldwide online travel services, is particularly interested in hiring military spouses.

All employers represented at the fair - from banks to colleges to retailers - must have at least five open job positions, Dempsey said, and some have many more.

She encouraged job-seekers to bring at least 40 copies of their resumes to distribute. Spouses who need to fine-tune their credentials can take a resume-building course on site.

Hiring Our Heroes is designed not only to help job-seekers find work, Dempsey said, but also educate employers about the benefits of hiring military spouses.

The White House's Joining Forces initiative to improve the quality of life for military families and veterans has helped bring the issue to the forefront.

"Clearly the White House - and (First Lady) Michelle Obama and (Jill) Biden (wife of vice president Joe Biden) in particular - started this national conversation," she said. "Three years ago, nobody was talking about military spouse employment."

Flexible motivation

Of course, there are career success stories. Erica Hughey, 34, said she took the "bloom where you're planted" approach when she encountered licensing red tape in the social work field when she moved here from Virginia in 2010.

"I have a bachelor's degree and enjoyed a 10-year career in as social working before (moving) to Fort Hood, even my own crisis intervention service," said the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, spouse. "But I was unable to continue my career, as Texas requires different licensure."

Instead of taking additional coursework to practice in Texas, Hughey redirected her career and now serves as an independent consultant with The Major Group, helping other military spouses navigate the minefields of licensing, certification and education through MyCAA.

It seems to have become a new calling for the mother of two children.

"It's very rewarding helping other spouses get the national certification they need to find employment in a specific career field," said Hughey, adding that pharmacy technician and medical office billing are popular paths.

"When I have a chance to tell them my story, it seems to help to motivate them," she said. "Not only do I service Fort Hood, but I am the team leader for other advisers in 10 states between Texas up to North Dakota."

On the side, Hughey said, she sells wall decorations and lettering as a "guilty pleasure."

Direct-sales option

Self-employment can be a great option for military spouses, Decindio said, particularly if it's a business they can take with them when they move.

Many spouses in the Killeen area own microbusinesses, selling either their own services or goods, or those of larger companies. Scentsy flameless scented candles and Tastefully Simple foods are popular products.

After applying for 15 jobs with no luck, Roberts has dipped into both kinds of businesses. She makes and sells girls' tutus and bows as well as hula hoops. She also is awaiting registration as a distributor of You Can Bake It cake and bread mix products.

In addition, Roberts volunteers as a co-facilitator of the Fort Hood Army Wives, a Facebook-based nonprofit organization with more than 5,800 members.

The nonprofit hosts a semi-annual expo for members with small businesses to sell their goods. The third gathering is scheduled for Friday at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center. More than 110 vendors have signed up, maxing out the available space.

Wives co-facilitator and nonprofit founder Anita Hernandez, whose husband was formerly with the 41st Fires Brigade, held the first expo last March with 40 vendors and wasn't surprised by the growing popularity of the event. She said the ranks of military spouses are filled with small business owners who want to help their families.

"When their husband's deployed, and they're solely responsible for the kids, it's hard for them filling the job of two parents when he's away," even before work, she said. "They're planning something that will work for them."

Contact Colleen Flaherty at colleenf@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHFortHood.

Employment fair, expo set

To register for the Hiring Our Heroes military spouse employment fair from 7 a.m. to noon March 28 at Fort Hood, go to www.hoh.greatjob.net. Registration ends Tuesday.

The Fort Hood Army Wives Expo is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center.

For more information on Fort Hood's Employment Readiness Branch, go to http://hoodmwr.com/acs/erb.html.

For more on the Talent Program or MyCAA, contact the Central Texas Workforce Center in Killeen at (888) 816-8970.

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