Hiring Preferences for Government Spouses
A perfectly reasonable initiative with a significant downside.
There is a move afoot to make it easier for spouses of Foreign Service Officers to get preferences in government hiring similar to those now enjoyed by those married to members of the armed forces. While well-intentioned, there are obvious drawbacks.
A bipartisan pair of senators is looking to ease the process for family members of Foreign Service officers to receive federal jobs, saying the measure would help the government recruit top-notch candidates for its career diplomatic corps.
The Foreign Service Families Act would enable the State Department to use expedited hiring authority for family members of Foreign Service officers overseas, much like the Defense Department does for military spouses. Foreign Service spouses would also receive notification of State vacancies and the department would build hiring preferences for them into contracts with private businesses. The bill would require State to expand telework opportunities so diplomat spouses could keep their jobs while traveling to new posts with their families.Government Executive, “Bipartisan Bill Would Expand Federal Job Opportunities for Foreign Service Spouses“
What’s behind this initiative?
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he introduced the bill due to his first-hand experiences growing up in a Foreign Service family, noting his mother was provided few opportunities when traveling to posts with her husband.
“These families often face unique challenges,” Van Hollen said. “This legislation will help provide more employment opportunities to Foreign Service spouses, and ensure that we can continue to attract and retain the best and the brightest to serve in our diplomatic corps.”
So . . . we’re basing this on the idiosyncratic experiences of one Senator’s childhood? And that Senator is . . . 60 years old? Could things maybe have changed a bit in the ensuing 40-odd years?
The American Foreign Service Association praised the intentions of the bill, saying its member families “frequent deployment abroad, often in difficult and even dangerous conditions.” The group said it welcomed a “high-level conversation” about the authorities and resources necessary to support those sacrifices.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who cosponsored the bill as it was unveiled last week to coincide with Foreign Service Day, said the measure would bring equity between military and civilian personnel serving overseas.
“Foreign service professionals are every bit as patriotic and service-oriented as members of our military, and often face similar challenges in far corners of the globe,” Sullivan said. “We can’t forget that their family members serve our country too and, as a result, find it difficult to secure employment opportunities of their own.”
The equity argument is reasonable. While there are differences in scope and scale between the military and foreign service lifestyle, frequent moves, including the expectation of repeated overseas assignments, are a feature of both.
Details on what the legislation would do are scant:
The bill would also seek to expand private sector job opportunities for Foreign Service family members by making space at State facilities for outside groups to provide career services and by “developing partnerships” for private companies.
It was understood even in my day as a young military officer–thirty years ago—that frequent travel wreaked havoc on the career of spouses. Indeed, mine was the first generation where it was simply expected that most spouses of officers would have careers of their own rather than keep the fires burning on the home front and provide unpaid support for the families of junior personnel.
Three decades later, we really haven’t solved the problem. And that’s even though we’ve long understood that it has spillover effects on retention and family cohesion. Spouses simply aren’t willing to sacrifice their own careers in the way they once did; nor should they be expected to.
Hiring preferences within the civil service and contractor sectors are an obvious way the government can help alleviate these pressures. But, of course, they’re only effective to the extent that they’re significant. And, to the extent they’re significant, it means that we’re hiring people who would otherwise be substantially less competitive.
Many rightly complain that preferences for veterans and, especially, veterans with service-connected disabilities make it challenging for hiring managers to get the right people. They may be forced to hire a minimally-qualified veteran rather than more qualified non-veterans in the pool. Add in the additional advantage of coming with a security clearance and the problem is exacerbated.
Ultimately, I suppose, the question is whether the trade-off is worth it. By definition, hiring preferences mean we’re hiring people hiring managers believe are less qualified than those who would otherwise be hired. That may be a reasonable sacrifice if it helps us retain the best military and foreign service officers.
At least the gender disparities will move in the opposite direction. One additional complaint about veterans’ preferences is that it further skews hiring, particularly in the national security space, male. Preferences for military spouses will, in the same measure, predominantly go to women. The skew is less for FSOs but still there.