Military Spouses are Igniting their Careers

Posted June 12, 2014

By: Noreen O’Neil, Hiring Our Heroes

In a country where one percent of the population has actively served in the military at any given time in the last decade, it can be hard to remember that our freedom comes at a price. And harder still to understand that that price is paid by families. The phrase unsung hero is as familiar to military spouses as the “Thank you for your service” that greets our service members. As appreciated as those refrains are, they do not tell our whole story.

As a proud Army wife of nearly 20 years and director of the Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Program, I see the real story every day. Increasingly, military spouses are singing our own song. We are speaking up and speaking out on a number of issues important to our community – from job opportunities and military child education to budget cuts. We are launching our own businesses, writing our own blogs, and sitting on boards. We are taking charge of our careers and creating options for ourselves across borders and even oceans.

Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Dakota Meyer says it best: You want to see what resilience looks like, go find a military spouse.

I see spouses working, running businesses, volunteering, and raising children, all on top of supporting our service members through training, deployments, reintegration, and transition every day.

I will be the first to tell you it’s not easy. I was pursuing a career in criminal justice when I met my husband. Since then, we have made 12 moves in 19 years, hop scotching across the country from one post to the next with four kids in tow. Would I go back and change a thing? Never.

At one point, I had four children under the age of 6, so pursuing a career outside of our home was not an option. Like many spouses before me, I jumped headfirst into volunteer positions and community leadership opportunities.

During our assignment at West Point, I spent a year planning a major West Point Women’s Club event, which put me in charge of 18 other volunteers and hundreds more on the day of the event. The event was a huge success for the Club, but even more so for me as I gained skills in management, budgeting, fundraising, and negotiation. I was “working”, I just didn’t get paid.

This volunteer position led to many others, and I soon found myself president of one of those Women’s Clubs. While at Fort Leavenworth, I ran 16 committees, managed the budget, and supervised a gift shop. I also oversaw grant distribution to the post’s organizations and schools.

It was this extensive experience in fundraising and event planning that helped me to land my current position. The Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Program, launched by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in January 2012, focuses on professional development, resume improvement, mentoring, and networking to ameliorate the challenges that military spouses face in starting and building careers. I am both privileged and proud to lead this incredible team, and I owe it all to the skills and knowledge I developed as a volunteer.

Sometimes it can be difficult to get recruiters to look past the gaps in work history that appear on military spouse resumes. Indeed, these gaps – often caused by our high mobility – may help to explain why our unemployment rate hovers around 25%. Perhaps recruiters assume spouses are not working during those periods, when the truth is we are serving as volunteers, mentors, leaders, and caregivers – all at no charge.

Educating both employers and spouses on their untapped potential is exactly what Hiring Our Heroes, Toyota, and Blue Star Families had in mind when we developed Career Spark, a first-of-its-kind resume tool built for military spouses, by military spouses. Career Spark walks users through building a skills-based resume that includes HR-friendly translations of volunteer positions common to military spouses. After a fully functional resume is created, spouses can then make them searchable to thousands of employers across the country.

I love Career Spark because it’s all about choices. It’s about having the choice to reenter the workforce after taking time off to help your wounded husband or wife reintegrate. Or having the choice to stay in your field or consider a career change regardless of mobility. It’s about having the choice to challenge yourself and change misperceptions surrounding you and your peers.

My biggest hope for this tool is that it will lead military spouses to change the way they think about their future, ultimately helping them find the career they love.