I was working as a publicist at a publishing house in New York City when my Air Force–officer boyfriend proposed. Eager for us to begin our new life together, I packed up my apartment, said goodbye to my friends and family, and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was stationed. I’d expected that the transition would be challenging, but what I hadn’t anticipated was that my greatest struggle as a military spouse would be finding a job.
After a short stint at a public relations firm, I worked a series of seemingly odd jobs, including youth group advisor, at-home stationery business owner, and part-time retail associate at a trendy boutique. By the time my husband separated from the military almost 10 years later, I had a resume full of experiences—but not a career.
Unfortunately, my situation is not unique. According to a recent survey by FlexJobs and Blue Star Families, a whopping 91% of military spouses say being a military spouse—or milspouse, for short—has had a negative impact on their career. Common employment obstacles include frequent Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves, solo parenting during deployments, and, sadly, flat-out discrimination.
But that doesn’t mean you have no chance for career success while your spouse is active duty. There are actually aspects of the military lifestyle that can be a boon to a milspouse’s professional life, if you take advantage of them—including the opportunity to meet new people and to become adept at change. While moving every few years may feel like the ultimate career sacrifice, remember that you’re acquiring new and useful skills everywhere you land: problem solving, resilience, adaptability, and interpersonal skills. And as corporate culture evolves and more organizations are open to flexible hours and remote work, the unpredictability of the milspouse’s life isn’t necessarily the liability it used to be.
Here are six ways you can make the job search and interview process less stressful and more successful, straight from the experts and fellow military spouses.
1. Revamp Your Resume
If you have gaps in your employment, you may want to consider a functional resume (also known as a skills-based resume) rather than a traditional chronological resume, says executive coach and HR expert Nancy Karas, founder of Habitat For HR. Because they de-emphasize the duration of your experiences and play up the skills you’ve accumulated instead, non-traditional resumes may benefit military spouses who’ve had to leave multiple jobs due to military moves or have worked in a variety of unrelated industries.
Rachael Thomas, an Air Force veteran and current military spouse who has been employed as an Air Force financial manager, an hourly clerical worker, and a teacher, is just one of several military spouses I spoke to who benefited from making the switch. “On a chronological resume, it would appear that I wasn’t very successful at any of them or that I was a major flight risk,” she says. “The functional resume is so much more useful in relating varied work experiences. It also gives me the flexibility to highlight what experiences are most applicable to the job I’m seeking.”
Admittedly, many people aren’t comfortable turning their resume on its head in this way. If you worry that a functional resume might raise a red flag with potential recruiters and hiring managers—and the reality is that it often does—try a combination resume, which gives equal billing to your relevant skills and your work history.
2. Reach Out for Assistance
Each military service offers resources to help spouses find employment on and off base. It’s just a matter of knowing where you should go, and you can often find this out during the intake process when your family arrives at a new base or from the spouse’s club at your significant other’s assigned unit.
For reference, there’s Army Community Service, Fleet and Family Support Center, and Airman and Family Readiness Center—depending on whether your spouse is in the Army, Navy, or Air Force. A Marine Corps base might have either a Career Assistance Branch or a Career Resource Management Center, and the Coast Guard offers the Spouse Employment Assistance Program.
When her husband was relocated overseas, for example, military spouse Jessika Jungman utilized the Airman and Family Readiness Center at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany for help with her resume, ultimately landing a job at the Child Development Center on base. (Keep in mind that when living abroad, most spouses can hold only federal jobs.)
3. Invest in Training and Education
At the Nellis Air Force Base Family Readiness Center, Thomas learned that the Las Vegas school district, which was short-staffed, was actively recruiting new teachers—and willing to train qualified applicants. Open to the idea of teaching, Thomas signed up for the necessary coursework, including a short student teaching practicum, in order to earn a provisional license to teach elementary school in Nevada. She was able to teach fourth grade for a year before her family moved overseas.
Pursuing a degree—whether in person or online—is also a great way to make yourself more competitive in the job market. That’s one reason why Rasheeda Senger decided to get her master’s in management and public relations. “As a military spouse, any further education is going to help with job applications,” says the public relations associate, who pursued an online degree because “I feel I can negotiate my salary in civilian jobs, and I am also looked at for higher paying federal government GS (General Schedule) jobs.”
But you don’t have to get a traditional degree to give your applications a boost. You might be interested in going to coding bootcamp, for example, or gaining very specific skills or certifications by taking one-off courses online or at a college or university nearby.
4. Think Outside the Box
Lindsay Bradford, military spouse and a senior manager for the military spouse program at Hiring Our Heroes, recommends stepping back and observing your career journey from a 1,000-foot view—far enough to see the big picture, but close enough to be able to identify your talents. “Once you look at your skill set, you will be surprised to see that those sets can be applied to many different industries,” she says. Being open to new opportunities, even new industries, will help keep your career moving forward.
One military spouse, who asked to remain anonymous, had to leave her job as a television producer to relocate halfway across the country with her active duty husband. Although she’s been able to freelance on a few TV shows since the move, she’s also been putting her entertainment industry experience to good use by taking on a handful of public relations clients and by producing events for local festivals.
Stepping out of your comfort zone may seem scary at first, but the benefits can be worthwhile. You’ll gain new expertise, make connections with new groups of people, and who knows? You might even land on something totally unexpected that you absolutely love.
5. Network, Network, Network
Still struggling to secure an interview? Get off the job boards and get out into your community. Job searching is all about who you know: Most jobs are never advertised, so you’ll only find them by networking.
“Make connections with as many people as possible,” advises the former television producer milspouse. “I’m always getting coffee with new people and raising my hand for every opportunity that comes my way. It’s so important to establish roots in your community.” And it takes an active effort on your part, especially if you’re moving every few years.
Specific professional networking groups for military spouses like the Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Professional Network and National Military Spouse Network can be particularly valuable, both for the peer support and for help finding new opportunities.
Bradford landed her current job with Hiring Our Heroes—and her previous two positions—through strategic networking. She was able to move from the corporate sector to the nonprofit world by attending networking events, using LinkedIn to set up informational interviews, and simply sharing her goal of working in the milspouse employment advocacy space with as many people as possible.
Remember to treat networking as a two-way street. “Your reputation in connecting and supporting others through networking also makes a difference,” says Bradford.
6. Don’t Out Yourself as a Milspouse
The disappointing truth is that nearly half of military spouses report experiencing discrimination in their job search, according to the FlexJobs survey. “I once had a fantastic job offer rescinded when I casually mentioned being excited to talk to my then-deployed husband,” says Thomas. “The hiring manager made a big fuss about the risk of me moving.”
Unless you’re applying for a job through the Department of Defense Military Spouse Employment Partnership program, which connects military spouses with corporate and nonprofit organizations, there’s no reason to mention your military affiliation in your cover letter, resume, or even interview. “Unless directly asked, we don’t need to volunteer anything about our personal lives that may cause someone to prejudge us,” says Karas.
Plus, relatively short job stints on your resume aren’t automatic red flags now that shorter tenures are increasingly the norm: According to a 2018 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median amount of time 25 to 34 year olds had been at their current job was only 2.8 years—which is about how often military families relocate.
But that doesn’t mean you need to lie either. If asked why a previous job ended, you can say that your family relocated due to new opportunities without identifying as a military spouse.
Bradford agrees: “This is your job interview. It has nothing to do with your spouse.”
Photo of person sitting at home working with a laptop, phone, and notebook courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.
PJ Feinstein is a freelance writer and communications professional who specializes in creating engaging copy for websites, blogs, newsletters, and social media. She began her career in book publicity and still can't believe that she once spoke to Judy Blume on the phone. Feinstein lives outside of Washington, DC with her family and desperately needs a solid eight hours of sleep.More from this Author