Breaking: Life Hard for Military Spouses Wanting Careers

You can either have a career in a white shoe law firm or marry a military officer. Pick one.

army-wife-hardest-job

Thomas Ricks calls attention to a problem that has been around . . . a few decades: it’s really hard to have a professional career if you have to move between random rural areas every couple of years. He spotlights this blinding flash of the obvious by posting emails like this one:

I am the wife of a JO currently stationed at Camp Lejeune. I am also an attorney. I have finally found work in the booming metropolis that is Jacksonville, N.C., with the caveat that I was offered only part-time work with no expectation of partnership (as everyone knows we will pcs in a couple of years). Further, I make 1/5th the salary that I made when we were married 5 years ago (my pre-Marine Corps life), and, to put that in perspective, my former law school and law firm peers are currently law partners making 3-4 times what I was making 5 years ago. Put simply, the lost income is staggering. Only I am responsible for my choices in life, and I certainly don’t regret mine, as I love my husband and the Marine Corps very much. But I never imagined it would be so difficult to find work. I have applied for countless gov’t positions — anything to get my proverbial foot in the door, mostly contract procurement jobs for which a college degree is not required — and have never gotten so much as an interview.

This is a bad situation and it’s one that puts real pressure on our all-volunteer force, particularly our junior officers. The days of trailing spouses who have no career of their own are a quarter century or more behind us.

But I don’t know what the hell to do about it. Yes, we could have fewer rotations. Yes, we could give military personnel more control over their assignments. But there just aren’t a lot of big time law firms in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Killeen, Texas, or Jacksonville, North Carolina. Conversely, there aren’t a lot of large maneuver bases in Manhattan, Boston, or DC.  So, someone just out of law school likely needs to choose between the partner track at a white shoe firm and marriage to a career military officer.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    She could join, too. I know there’s no absolute guarantee of a “join spouse” assignment, but at least she’d be able to keep working and build experience even when they PCS.

    And if she’s still paying off law school, the military will pay her a decent sum to offset it.

  2. Joy says:

    Well, the example being used here is difficult, mainly because finding a law job these days is hard, nevermind in small military towns like Jacksonville NC.

    Here’s my hard earned advice for working military spouses. If you’re going to be a working military spouse, you need to have a transferable skillset – whether it’s medicine, education, government or what have you. (For me, my technology skills got me in the door to work.) Even better if your skillset can be translated to work that can be done remotely and at home, then it doesn’t matter where you live if the duty station isn’t that great. You just can’t expect to have a parallel civilian career that requires time in a competitive environment if your spouse is military, you have to work around the ebb and flow of this lifestyle.

  3. John Peabody says:

    Yes, the comments really lead to nothing but a “what did you expect?” remark. Some couples solve this by basing themselves in one location, while the service member continues the military career. It all depends where you place your personal values.

  4. JWH says:

    Hmph. One would think the military could accommodate folks like this by, say, helping the wife find a position as a civilian attorney helping out with JAG.

  5. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I have no idea if such things exist, but it wouldn’t seem like much of a stretch to create some sort of employment preference for white-collar & professional military spouses within the Federal government with a focus on telecommutable jobs. I’m sure there’s plenty of tech support, legal research / document review, accounting work, etc., that can be done remotely and on an offset schedule. They probably would not be glamorous careers, but something with a GS 5/7/9 or 9/11/12 career path that could be done anywhere in the world would be helpful for military families.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    Law is a particularly difficult field because your skills and knowledge do not necessarily transfer from state to state.

  7. JWH says:

    @PD Shaw:

    You can’t transfer from state to state, but surely there are some law jobs, perhaps within DOD, for which spouses could get a preference?

  8. Scott says:

    As you wrote, this issue has been around for a long time. Actually, I’m surprised that it was surprising to Thom Ricks.

    Regardless, I doubt there could (or should) be a institutional-based policy solution. Each couple’s situation, motivation, plans, etc. are unique to them. It really is up to each couple to think hard about what is important to them and make the decisions. All of us who faced this same situation have made compromises and decisions and learn to live with them. In fact, that is what non-military couples do also and often those decisions are just as tough.

  9. This isn’t just a military issue. Any marriage with two working spouses is probably going to have to decide which of the two careers is the primary one at some point, and the secondary one is going to have to limit their options based on what’s in the geographical vicinity of the primary one’s current location. I have a coworker who’s wife is moving to a distant state for their medical residency and is going to have to largely abandon his engineering career because there’s no significant firms in his area of expertise near the hospital she’s going to be working at.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    @JWH: I expect the limited number of law jobs are being filled by preferences to the people who actually enlisted. Certainly, DOD makes the most sense for her given her limitations, but I would also assume that DOD is one of the more fastidious agencies when it comes to keeping matters in-house under tight security. (I get the sense there are some military contractor types that frequent here; maybe they have better sense of DOD’s flexibility on telecommuting, but I suspect it might be tighter than allowing people to work from home)

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Well, it seems the first thing you want to do if you’re an attorney in such a position is specialize in something that is federal law, not state law. Second: start with a law firm that is willing to let you telecommute and arrange for your continued nexus at said firm.

    There’s a lot of transactional work that should be able to be done remotely. In which case all you need is a good computer and a decent internet connection.

    (One of our lawyers works from home most of the time and calls in for meetings. Shows up at the office maybe one day a month. Doesn’t seem to have hurt anything.)

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Do spouses of active duty military receive preference when applying for civil service jobs? Should they?

  13. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @grumpy realist: I was thinking of something tangential, which would be to also get a Masters in Accounting or Taxation and possibly become a JD/CPA. When I was in public accounting, JDs who also understood financial and/or tax accounting were in high demand, and a lot of it related to transactional work or the ability to research and understand international taxation issues or representing before the IRS.

  14. superdestroyer says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    There is a limit to the preference. The preference works is the spouse has a civil service job and the active duty military spouse is reassigned. The spouse gets put on the preferred placement list. However, getting the first job is hard for many spouses.

    The article is correct that one of the issues is college graduates marrying each other and two profession couples really need to work in large urban areas. I mage that petroleum engineers or mining engineers face the same problems.

  15. Andy says:

    It’s definitely one of the downsides of military service. Couples need to have an honest discussion about this commitment beforehand.

  16. Barry says:

    @Scott: “I’m surprised that it was surprising to Thom Ricks.”

    It’s not.

    Ricks: “The more I read, the more I am persuaded that getting the leaders of the U.S. military to recognize that marriages are different now is of utmost importance. Here is one: ”

    James, you might want to notice that language, as well.

  17. Barry says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “This isn’t just a military issue. Any marriage with two working spouses is probably going to have to decide which of the two careers is the primary one at some point, and the secondary one is going to have to limit their options based on what’s in the geographical vicinity of the primary one’s current location. I have a coworker who’s wife is moving to a distant state for their medical residency and is going to have to largely abandon his engineering career because there’s no significant firms in his area of expertise near the hospital she’s going to be working at. ”

    This is true, but with a military career that spouse might be moved every 2-3 years for 20 years. I imagine that it’s a rare civilian career which matches that intensity.