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Military spouses often fight stereotypes in the workplace

Military spouses don’t have it easy when it comes to pursuing a career. Moving every few years when their spouse is reassigned makes it tough to complete their education, and to follow a career path.

Some employers in areas like the Coast where there is a large military presence reject applicants who are military spouses because of concerns about how long the employee will be on the job. But other employers have found that military spouses make exemplary employees.

“We enjoy hiring people from the military,” said Karen Engel, director of operations for the YMCA in Ocean Springs. “I would recommend other employers give these people an opportunity to work in their organization because of their dependability, their enthusiasm and their knowledge. They are really knowledgeable. They bring new ideas and programs to our Y. When they leave, we hate to see them go.”

Engel said the military spouses bring a multitude of talents to the job, are adaptive and hard working. The YMCA has about a dozen employees associated with the military at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, the Navy Homeport Pascagoula and the Seabee base in Gulfport.

“We have to stick up for ourselves,” says Jamie Bickers, office manager for Dr. Hank Roberts, a dentist in Biloxi. “When you go for a job interview the first thing you are asked is if you are military. We can do jobs as good as anyone else. We adjust well because we move so much. I think we are more flexible as far as learning something new. The work ethic of military spouses is wonderful.”

One of the myths that can make it tough for military spouses is that they will only be stationed in the area a year or two. But today the military has shifted towards allowing personnel to stay longer at one base than was common in the past.

Bickers, who has been in Biloxi for four years, said it can cause an employer concerns when it is uncertain how long you will be staying in the area. But Bickers counters that it is better to get someone hard working and dependable even if they stay for only a few months rather than skipping over that person to hire someone without the drawbacks of being at the beck and call of Uncle Sam — but who might not have good work ethics.

“I’ll give my best for however long you have me,” she said.

Another common myth is that wives of men in the military don’t have to work, and can be stay-at-home wives. “But over half of us have to work,” said Bickers, who has hired several other military spouses to work at the dental office. “We don’t make as much money as people think we do. We have to work, so that makes our work ethic that much better. Most of us just have a high school education, and we can’t afford to go to school. We have to learn as we go. I’ve been in the military 12 years. I have had several different jobs and I have had to adjust each time we move. You can’t always stay in same career field.”

Becky Stanley, career focus program manager at the Keesler Air Force Base Family Service Center in Biloxi, helps spouses of military personnel find employment. She has sympathy for the challenges faced by military spouses, and is quick to explain why employers should give them a chance.

“Our spouses are so multi-skilled and rounded in experience in different employment settings that they immediately bring to an employer quick use skills,” Stanley said. “They are able to step in, take responsibilities, and come in with new ideas and fresh approaches. They absolutely give something unique.”

The issue of the length of the employee’s stay in the area can be a sticky point during interviews. But Stanley said once employers get over that concern, they find that they are going to get a good, hard worker for the duration.

“The reality is that we don’t just move everyone constantly,” she said. “There is more stability to the family life.”

Throughout all the branches of the military at family support centers there is someone working to help spouses get employment.

“What we usually do is schedule appointments, provide workshops, do individual coaching, and help them take their skills and find the right niches in the area they have moved to,” Stanley said. “We usually are active in the community, and have an awareness of what is going on with the employment market. We interface with numerous businesses, and we market ourselves as a good thing for the business. Some businesses regularly send us their job listings because they like our spouses.”

Military spouses have a lot to give to a community. Most have lived in different areas of the country or overseas, and have a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences. They may progress up the ladder in one job, gaining promotions and higher pay, and then have to start over again proving themselves in a new area.

“I know that it can sometimes be disheartening, restarting the career whenever they move again,” Stanley said. “Both their career and education can be start-stop. Sometimes they might not be able to find the exact curriculum at places where they have moved.”

Stanley has a lot of admiration for military spouses, and has found that they are educated, trained, experienced, adaptive, organized and want to establish their credibility as quickly as possible.

“They adapt quickly,” Stanley said. “They are really outstanding folks who move across the states or the world, set up housekeeping, get the kids in school and go to work. They settle in, make their friends, become part of the community, and are just a tremendous asset. They are good change agents. They are good at accepting change, bringing change and being a part of change. I think they are absolutely dynamic. It is fun to sit on my side of the desk and see what is being brought into this community in the way of skills. It is a good job.”

The military has, in some cases, partnered with temporary staffing firms to provide opportunities for spouses. The U.S. Navy works with Adecco USA Inc., a temporary staffing firm.

“We find that military spouses come to us with a whole range of skills, and a good work ethic,” said Victoria Mitchell, director of public relations, Adecco USA Inc. “Because the nature of so many of our placements is temporary, either short-term or long-term, the temporary nature of military spouses deployment at one base fits very nicely with our work model. It gives us ready access to a great pool of candidates to offer to our clients.”

Because military personnel are assigned to a base for a specific period of time, Adecco can assign them to long-term assignments, which isn’t necessarily the case for people who are using temporary work as a jumping off spot for a permanent position. Spouses placed in short-term positions can be shifted to other jobs later after they have developed more skills.

Problems with the spouse being able to pursue a career can be a retention issue for the military. So helping spouses with employment is good for the military, Mitchell said.

Adecco provides benefits including paid holidays, vacation and health insurance. It has a formal partnership with the Navy, and informal partnerships with other branches of the military.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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