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.
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.
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?”