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Military Spouses and Unemployment: Overcoming Barriers to Success

Find resources and firsthand accounts that address stigma, frequent moves, employment gaps

spinner image Jesse and Stephanie Zuck with one of their children
Jesse and Stephanie Zuck with one of their children.
Courtesy Stephanie Zuck

As Stephanie Zuck sat on a beach in Hawaii, her first duty station as a military spouse, she noticed a stark contrast between the trees there and those in her home state. The oak trees of Georgia, with their deep roots, reminded her of the strong family ties she left behind. The banyan trees of Hawaii, with their roots stretching across the surface in search of nourishment, represented the struggles she and many other military spouses face in their quest to find a sense of community and employment amid the frequent station changes that come with military life.

“I realized quickly that this was a very transient life. Decisions were often made, and my plans had to be flexible,” says Zuck, 52. Her husband, Jesse, 54, served in the Army for 25 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, while Zuck raised their children and focused on volunteering in the military community, leading Bible studies and women’s groups.

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Although 90 percent of military spouses have either some college or a graduate or other professional degree, they often struggle with unemployment and underemployment, according to a 2019 survey by the Department of Defense’s Office of People Analytics (OPA).

When conditions allowed, Zuck excelled at her studies, but she often had to put her education on hold for other priorities.

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“It was a matter of the money, the travel to see your family and needing to be there to help take care of my father,” she says. “It was just hard on us financially. So I decided not to finish school. I was discouraged, but I just put it aside and said I have other things that I’m doing. It’s fine. This is more important.”

Recent data found that 14 percent of military spouses changed their primary employment career field within six months leading up to the survey, 9 percent of respondents reported completing a new certification, while 5 percent had completed a new degree, the 2023 Blue Star Families' Military Spouse Employment Research Project found. 

Employment struggles

One of the biggest barriers to employment for military spouses is the ever-present possibility of relocation. Finding new employment after a move can be difficult and time-consuming.

“We’re constantly on the go — I moved 12 times in about 13 years. So we lack the capacity to build that network that others do when they stay in one place,” says Karla Langham, special adviser on the Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service’s (VETS) mission. “It starts to become apparent to the employer that you are part of the military life. And with that comes those assumptions that are already placed on women: Who is going to take care of the kids when your spouse goes on deployments? How long are you going to be here? Are we going to invest in you for you to leave in just about a year to two years?”

In 2021, 21 percent of active-duty military spouses in the labor force were unemployed, a rate nearly four times higher than the general unemployment rate. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of military spouses are women (90.5 percent), according to estimates by the Department of Defense.

Eighty-one percent of military spouses have experienced a permanent change of station, or PCS, during their partner’s active-duty career, and more than one-third of them take seven months or longer to find a job, according to the 2019 OPA survey.

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Owning your identity

Alice Rolli, 43, chose not to pursue the traditional career path for military spouses, which emphasizes learning transferable skills. Such jobs would include teaching, caregiving, real estate or working at the military post exchange.

“I think once you can navigate the idea of saying ‘This is part of my identity,’ then you can find employers, which I was fortunate enough to find,” she says.

spinner image Alice and Michael Rolli
Courtesy Alice Rolli

Amid all the frequent moves, Rolli faced difficulties finding stable employment. While she was studying for her MBA, she had trouble securing internships and permanent employment because of concerns that she could move at a moment’s notice. By owning her identity as a military spouse, she found success with a remote job.

“I answered an ad online that said ‘can work from anywhere.’ I wrote a very forward response that outlined my strengths and closed with, ‘If can work from anywhere means Brussels, Belgium, then I’m your girl,’ ” Rolli says. “I just decided that instead of hiding it, I’d own it and lead with it.”

Rolli grew the business, now known as Worldstrides, by managing finances, training sales teams and increasing revenue by millions. She also earned a stake in the company.

After 12 years of active duty with the Army Medical Corps, her husband, Michael Rolli, left the military as a major in 2011.  

“Given my career success, he was able to spend eight years after the Army exploring new areas. He took the GI Bill and got a degree in film, and produced several shorts and worked closely for many years on a feature,” she says. “He was the primary parent of our two boys, and I was the primary breadwinner.”

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New opportunities and resources

Although Rolli found remote work before the COVID-19 pandemic, telework has become a viable option for military spouses since then.

“Everyone is realizing that they can go virtual at this point,” says Langham. “What I’ve heard from other leaders and other companies is that it’s more expensive to replace a person than to keep the one that you have. So I think it’s a good symbiotic relationship that’s growing here.”

The AARP Veteran & Military Spouse Job Center offers free, accredited courses, pre-selected certification opportunities and career paths for veterans and military spouses to learn sought-after digital skills to pursue remote work or other flexible career opportunities.

The Department of Labor provides support to veterans and military spouses, including:

  • Employment Navigator & Partnership Pilot (ENPP). Provides career assistance to transitioning service members and their spouses at 22 military installations across the globe. 
  • Transition Employment Assistance for Military Spouses (TEAMS). Military spouses and caregivers can attend virtual workshops on a variety of topics, such as résumé essentials, interview skills and salary negotiation.
  • Off-Base Transition Training (OBTT). Veterans, those serving in the National Guard, Reserves and their spouses have the opportunity to attend 10 different workshops to move their career forward. This training is currently available online and in California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Other government agencies that aid in military spouse employment include:

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