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Military spouses face uphill employment battle

Spouses have to reinvent their career path at each post.

By Ashley Morris StarNews Staff

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Before Miranda Perales’s husband was transferred to Camp Lejeune, she was working at her dream job. She was making a difference at her online marketing firm in San Antonio, Texas, she had freedom, she got to travel for work and loved the people she worked with. But in 2014 they relocated to Southeastern North Carolina. Like many career-oriented military spouses, Perales anticipated the move. She stated networking to find a new marketing firm and arranged to work remotely for the first year she was in North Carolina.

“It’s been a rough journey,” Perales said Friday at the Milspo Project fundraiser at Waterline Brewery. After working remotely for a year, she tried one firm in Wilmington that was not a right fit, then another where she was laid off. Thankfully meetups at the Milspo Project sowed ideas of entrepreneurship in Perales and she is now a partner at The Hive & Co., a local marketing company she runs with fellow military spouse, Shiang-Ling Bissonnette, who happens to be the local chapter leader for Milspo in Wilmington.

Headquartered in Wilmington, the nonprofit wants to empower and educate military spouses in being entrepreneurs. Perales’ journey as a military spouse is not unique in that most career-oriented spouses have to trade in their career for a life as a military spouse. Military spouses struggle to find jobs and are more likely to work for less pay or in positions below their education level, leading to higher unemployment rates among military spouses. A study by Blue Star Families found up to 42 percent of military spouses are currently unemployed, compared to about 25 percent of spouses in the civilian population.

Frequent moves, deployments and erratic schedules of service members tend to push the unemployment numbers up higher than national jobless averages, according to the Associated Press. The unexpected reality of trading in a career and the silent sacrifices spouses make during a loved ones’ service is what led Elizabeth Boardman to co-found the Milspo Project. Entrepreneurship may not be the only answer to the jobless problem and may not be for everyone, but it is certainly a strong answer, she said.

“Really what military spouses have and develop from being nomads and going through deployments is grit, tenacity and a passion for helping others — all skills easily transferable to entrepreneurship,” Boardman said.

Milspo (an abbreviation for military spouse) provides resources through workbooks, an annual business conference and more than 38 monthly meetups across the country for different Milspo chapters. Since it was founded in 2014, the organization has become the largest member organization for United States military spouse entrepreneurs. Boardman explains the meetups were born after she realized the empowerment in weekly get-togethers with other military spouses trading stories about what life looks like in service. There is a comfort in going into a room and not having to explain yourself, she said. Boardman believes its high time to share what the other side of military service looks like. The organization held its first auction fundraiser Friday at Waterline Brewery. While the organization is known to many in the military, Boardman said she wanted to introduce Milspo to the greater Wilmington community.

“With this nomad lifestyle we are seeing spouses have to reinvent themselves every two to three years,” she said. “You have to say goodbye to certain parts of yourself as a military spouse, and that does just come with military life, but we believe everyone should have access to meaningful employment.”

Siobhan Norris, a military student support specialist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said researchers are looking into how that lack of fulfillment at home can actually have an impact on national security. Norris, a veteran, is also a military spouse. She served in the military police from 2000 to 2004 and met her husband who was also serving in South Korea. Once married, she chose to leave the military, but it still didn’t give her and her husband a traditional life or career path. In 14 years she has moved 12 times. The military couple are now at a point where they have spent more time together in 14 years than apart, but until last year that was not the case with multiple combat deployments.

“There is a lot of sacrifice in the career aspect,” Norris said.

She is part of UNCW’s initiative in offering military affiliated students more career options upon graduating and leaving the service. Norris said UNCW’s veteran’s affairs office has a special partnership with the university’s career center to help military affiliated students. Norris and associate director for employer development Rebecca Christiansen now sit on the employment council of the national Military Spouse Employment Partnership, meaning the two are the leading voices in higher education for best practices in hiring military spouses.

“You hear about hiring veterans, but military spouses are a large, historically overlooked population,” Norris said.

Norris said the military loses talented leaders and service members because their spouses cannot find employment.

“You hear the saying, ‘happy wife, happy life,’ well service members spend an average eight years in the military and it takes millions of dollars in training to develop these leaders,” Norris said, adding then the service member are walking away because their spouses either cannot find employment or meaningful employment. “We have to find a way to have retention, especially for these leaders, so there is a national conversation about how military spouse unemployment can ultimately affect national security.”

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