Military Orders…The Waiting Game

I have decided that waiting for Military Orders is a little like waiting for the birth of a child….you know that the orders are coming and have a rough idea when you might have to move; but they are often late, and there is usually a period of frenetic activity and complete chaos once they do. Unfortunately the timing of Military Orders is not as precise as the timing of predicted birth dates, and you may be left waiting for months rather than weeks. The husband and I are playing the waiting game right now. We may find out where we are headed in April but could be required to move any time from May to November. The list of options is long and includes most areas of the US as well as Europe and Japan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel a little helpless from a career standpoint. I would love to have a little more notice. I want to do the right thing by giving my current employer a decent amount of notice, but I also want to start researching the job market and employment options in our next location. I have been a Military Spouse for a while now. I know that once the orders arrive they will kickstart the usual paperwork, cull of old clothing, toys and kitchen utensils, research on neighborhoods and schools and the planning of travel arrangements.  I know that I will be very caught up in the practicalities of finishing our time here, and getting ready to establish ourselves somewhere completely new…so how does my job search even get a look in? As a Military Spouse, it is certainly difficult to get the job search underway when you have no idea where you are headed, but there are some things you can be doing now to optimize your chances of early success. These practical tasks can get you in the best position to commence your job search once the orders arrive, and may even help take your mind off the waiting game!

  1. Update the Resume. You know you need to. Many of us don’t have our current job listed – the resume went back in the proverbial file cabinet once we found the current job. As Military Spouses, we know we should always have a resume ready to go…but lets be honest…it might need a bit of updating. Get that done now. You will have enough on your plate once the orders come – this is one task you can get done ahead of time.
  2. Increase activity on professional social media forums. Perhaps you have a LinkedIn or Professional Association account but haven’t been on the website in months. Update your profile and start joining the conversations and making contributions within forums and websites associated with your field. Get your name out there to make new connections and also to establish a digital track record of your credibility within your industry.
  3. Reconnect with professional contacts. It can be hard (and a little insincere) to get in touch with a contact from three years ago when you need to ask them for help. Get in touch now, before you are “in need.” Email, call or message a former colleague to see how their career is going, how their family is, or wether they finally made that RV trip to the Grand Canyon. Establish the dialog and the professional networking will flow more genuinely and more effectively than if you wait.
  4. Plan for your succession.You may not be in a position to share your impending move with your current employer, but that does not mean you can’t think and plan how you will best turn over your work to your replacement. Your current employer and colleagues are your most valuable references for a future position and so it is important to leave on the best terms and with the most professional handover you can arrange. You will be busy once the orders arrive so start the plan or handover file now.

The Waiting Game is definitely one of the more difficult aspects of life as a Military Spouse, but I am determined to effectively use my waiting time over the next few months. Like the birth of a child, no amount of preparation will make the event seamless, but anything I can do now to prepare for the job search will reduce stress and allow me to more effectively use my time in the future. I’ll start with the resume tomorrow!

This Military Life: When was your last “well-being” check?

I really enjoyed Jeremy Hilton’s recent article on “Caring for Yourself” in the February issue of Military Spouse Magazine. Jeremy provides a sage reminder that many Military Spouses within our community have been “burning the candle at both ends for much too long.” I think he is right. As a community, we do find it hard to say “no” and those Spouses who seek to pursue a professional career alongside their Service Member partner can sometimes find themselves stretched as they try to balance their professional responsibilities with holding down the fort on the home front, and being involved with the many extra curricular activities associated with Military life.

As I read Jeremy’s article I found myself subconsciously assessing my own well-being. That week alone I drove past my street and forgot to turn, found the peanut butter in the freezer and had only eaten a healthy home cooked meal one night in three. I was tired. I could not remember the last time I had exercised regularly, and usually collapsed into bed straight after wolfing down whatever food I could locate in my poorly stocked cupboard. My idea of a dream vacation was one on which I could sleep for an entire week.

When I think about this in hindsight, it was not really surprising that my quality of life was poor, and that my overall well-being left much to be desired. My husband had been deployed for just over 3 months, and I was working two separate jobs. With two children under three and the closest family living an 8 hour flight away, I was a recipe for disaster. I was regularly asked to attend activities associated with my husband’s unit, and found it hard to say no when volunteers were sought for fundraising activities or organizations. One day I was up at 4.30am baking burritos to drop off for a sale before I headed to work, and the next I was home at 6pm to feed, bath and bathe both children, put them to bed, and then hand over to a babysitter so I could attend a Board Meeting until 9pm.

In trying to be all things to all people, my family were not getting my best, my employers were not getting my best and I was exhausting myself trying to play catch-up. Following my self “well-being” check, I sat down and thought about my time, my energy and my priorities. I stopped volunteering for those Base and Unit activities and events which were beyond my reasonable ability to contribute to meaningfully. I spoke honestly with my employers about my limitations and my personal situation and reduced my hours and responsibilities to a more manageable level.  I also made sure to program myself some downtime where I could rest and recoup.

I do think Military Spouses are super-heroes and I have an enormous amount of admiration for those Spouses who are juggling careers and the Military lifestyle so well. But I also think it behoves all of us to give ourselves a regular “well-being” check up and evaluate our work-life balance. As Jeremy argues, “we need to recognize we aren’t invincible, and make sure we take care of ourselves too.”

Professional Development 101: Be proactive and ask for what you want

Sometimes I think I am my own worst enemy on the career front. I am very excited and grateful when I land a position in my field because I know first hand how hard it can be to find timely and fulfilling work as a Military Spouse. I give that position and that employer my very best effort. I assume that they will send me on any training courses I absolutely need, but I never really think about the opportunities beyond that. I mean they hired me despite knowing I was a 2-3 year prospect – they would never seriously consider longer term, non-essential professional development opportunities…or would they?

I learned a valuable lesson in being proactive this week. I am signed up for some of the free monthly emails that I can get from associations within my industry and I saw an advertisement for a 3 day international conference that had some incredibly high profile presenters covering all the latest trends and developments in my field. Registration was $695 so I considered paying it for a while before deciding that it might be a little difficult to justify given that we will PCS soon and I will be out of a job (again!). So then I sat there and felt a little wistful about the things I would feel OK paying for if I had a long-term guaranteed job…and then I thought – why don’t I ask if my employer would consider footing the bill as a professional development opportunity. I expected a no – my employer has never mentioned anything about funding for professional development opportunities, and even my initial training seemed a little basic and cost conscious…but I figured unless I asked…I would never know.

I researched the presentations listed for the conference and drafted a request with justification for my supervisor. I gave examples of some of the queries and questions I had received from clients and how this conference would help me address some of these issues. I explained that I didn’t just “want to do my job” – I wanted to do the best possible job I could – to go above and beyond in providing a service to the people I teach by being up to date and knowledgeable about all aspects of the industry.

It took a week of consideration, but my supervisor rang me this morning to let me know that she was registering both me and a colleague for the conference. She has asked that we use the conference to develop some short continuation training sessions for other members of the company. This conference will undoubtedly help me do my current job better, and my colleagues will benefit from the continuation training my colleague and I develop. But beyond that – it is the type of high-profile professional event that I would consider listing on my resume, and I know that the connections and knowledge I will gain may result in 20 years worth of career benefits down track. So I am SO GLAD I ASKED!!

I am thinking back now on opportunities I may have missed over the last few years because I never asked. Let’s be realistic – most supervisors won’t come to us with professional development opportunities on a platter. They are concerned about their bottom line, and frankly, they are usually too busy thinking about the here and now to research and think about non-essential training opportunities. It is up to us as individuals to be aware of the professional training opportunities that are available and then make a business case to our employers. Don’t assume they will say no because you are a Military Spouse and won’t be staying with the company indefinitely. Be proactive and know that your employer recognizes a good employee and the impact these professional development opportunities will have for both you and the company. So what is out there for you – take the time to research and be bold enough to ask!!

We want to take overseas orders…but can I get a job!

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I remember the first time my husband broached the idea of overseas orders…I think we were sitting down for a regular dinner and it went something like…”so I can go to an Aircraft Carrier job out of San Diego or Norfolk … but there is also this option to go to a Base in Italy. What do you think?” To be honest – I didn’t really think..I am quite sure I didn’t even process the first part of his question – I was already envisioning cycling through the Tuscan hillsides and meandering the canals of Venice. It was only after the orders officially arrived and the tickets were booked that I started to think seriously about what this meant for my career.

The chance to live in the middle of Europe for two years seemed like one of those opportunities that we would be crazy to pass up, but once the reality had set in…I’ll be honest – I started to get a bit scared. What if I couldn’t find a decent job. My friends and family consoled me, saying “Well at least you will be in Europe…who really wants to work there…you could travel every weekend…you won’t have to worry about leave…it is all about the life experience!” In part I agreed with them…it was an amazing experience on offer…but the other part of me knew that my work and my career was also an important part of who I was. The longest that I had ever spent between jobs at that time was 3 months, and I knew how hard I had found that. I enjoyed the routine, the challenge, the sense that I was contributing, and the mental exercise of a job – no matter how menial…and I wasn’t sure that I could cope with the idea of a couple of years unemployed.

So what is the reality of an overseas posting for a Military Spouse seeking work?

I think it does depend on the type of overseas posting that you take. If you are stationed at a US Base overseas, there are certainly opportunities and if you are willing to broaden the types of jobs and positions you apply for – you can usually find work. If you are at a location with a very small US presence, perhaps an exchange posting where the Service Member is attached to a Foreign Unit, or a US billet in an International Headquarters – the going can be tough.

So where do you start?

  • The Family Support Center. Without a doubt, the best place to seek advice if you are moving to a US Installation overseas, is the local ACS, Airman and Family Readiness Center, or Fleet and Family Support Center. “Google” the installation and you will find the local installation’s Family Support Center Email address. Almost every major base has a Family Employment Readiness Person who works within the Family Support Center – a Contractor or Federal Civilian who is responsible for assisting and advising Service Family Members on local employment opportunities and local application processes. If you are lucky they will have great advice on the Federal and MWR jobs, but also have links to local contractors who work on the base.
  • Your sponsor. While your sponsor is primarily tasked with ensuring the Service Member arrives safely and securely, they can be a great “on-the-ground” resource for you in your job hunt. Engage your sponsor and ask for a referral or the email address of any working spouses, so that you can tap into their network and ask for advice about the types of opportunities available before you arrive.
  • The Base Newspaper. Many of the local base jobs will be advertised in the local paper. When I first arrived in Italy, I had been targeting USA.jobs to look for a Federal job, not realizing that there was a slew of positions GS-11 and below, that were advertised and filled locally without ever being advertised on USA.jobs. The Base paper may also give you an insight into the contractors working on the installation.
  • Local Human Resources Office (HRO). Once you arrive in location, the US Bases will have a HRO which is responsible for filling the local US Federal Jobs. See what they have advertised, but also try to schedule an appointment with one of the Hiring Representatives. Networking with them in person may give you a lead on positions which may become available in the near term, and advice on the application process.
  • Local US Embassy. If there is a Local US Embassy, they usually have occasional vacancies for Consular Staffing positions which need to filled by US citizens.
Things to be aware of:
  • Status of Forces Agreements. When the US establishes a Base in a Foreign Country, there is usually a Status of Forces Agreement. This governs how US citizens are treated in the event of things like a criminal act, but can also place restrictions on the employment of US Base associated family members in the local community. The Foreign Government obviously wants to protect the employment opportunities for its own population, so many countries prohibit the hire of US Base family personnel without significant paperwork and authority, making off-base opportunities all but impossible.
  • Timing Constraints on “Local Hire US Federal Jobs”. If US Federal Positions are available and advertised for “Local Hiring Preference”, this preference will only be available 30 days prior to your arrival in country. You may have orders 4 months earlier, but will not be eligible to apply and be considered with this preference until 30 days before the report date of the orders. You should also be aware that if you take a position using this preference, you can not remain in it indefinitely. Once your sponsor leaves the country, you can usually only remain in the position and the country legally for another 90 days.
  • The Military Spouse Preference System. Military Spouses receive preferential status when applying for Federal Employment. However – you should be aware that there are many other types of preferential treatment available within the Federal System. Previous US Federal Civilians and US Veterans also receive preference and, based upon their individual circumstances, may receive a higher level of preference than a Military Spouse. There are many Veterans who marry and live around foreign bases and also many Military Spouses who are also Veterans. This means there is significant competition for all Federal positions overseas, and that the Military Spouse Preference does not ensure employment by any means. There are also stringent rules about eligibility for the Preference – if you marry after your Spouse has already received the orders you may not qualify (Military Spouse Appointment Eligibility).
  • Education vs Experience. The Military Spouses I saw struggle the most to obtain employment, were those that had completed  higher degrees, but did not yet have formal work experience. Because the overseas bases usually have a more competitive job market, it can make it particularly hard to gain a professional level position without formal work experience. The Spouses who overcame this hurdle were often the ones who volunteered (and therefore networked extensively) within the local community, and were later offered positions because of their reputation.
Despite the challenges, I believe it may actually be easier to enter the Federal System overseas than it is Stateside because of the sheer turnover of positions, and there are certainly a significant number of professional level contractor positions available at most bases. This means that while opportunities may not be available when you arrive, the employment landscape can change significantly within only a few months. Of the four Military Spouses I met in my first week overseas, 2 of us found Federal Employment, and 2 found employment with Professional Contracting Firms within 6 months of arrival. There is certainly a risk associated with overseas orders – that the employment opportunities may be limited…but if you are open and understanding about the risk – the life experience is certainly worth having!!

 

 

 

Military Spouse Underemployment: The Elephant in the Room

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As I was reading a recent Air Force Times article on the difficulty DOD is having in tracking the success of the Military Spouse Employment Programs, I found it hard not to be a little cynical although I do appreciate that obtaining metrics on these type of programs is an incredibly difficult task. My cynicism stems from my perception that there seems to be so much emphasis on plugging a Military Spouse into a job that I think some people might be forgiven for thinking that Military Spouse employment is a charitable cause rather than a wise business decision for an employer.

There is a lot of talk about the success of Military Spouse employment programs…. “Defense officials say that since the program was launched in June 2011, more than 32,323 military spouses have been hired by MSEP employer partners”… but I do wonder how many of these spouses would have been hired regardless. I applaud the employers who are coming on board with these programs and making a public commitment to hire Military Spouses, and I think it is fantastic that DOD is trying to implement strategies to help Military Spouses – but the reality is that many of these employers (DeCA, CNIC, MCCS, Navy Exchange) were employing Military Spouses long before MSEP evolved. To evaluate the real success of the DOD Military Spouse employment initiatives, I think we need to be looking at the change in percentage of Military Spouses hired by these employers over recent years, rather than the raw number of overall jobs for spouses.

More importantly, we also need to be tracking the types of jobs which are being filled, and the appropriateness of these jobs for the educational background and professional experience of the new hire. The Military Spouse community reflects the make-up of the wider community – there are spouses from every different educational background and we all have very different career aspirations – some of us do not wish to work, and some of us want to become the President of the United States or the CEO of Lockheed Martin one day.

If we are trying to implement Military Spouse employment initiatives that are effective, we need to ensure that these programs serve their target audience and this is tough for any one program to do when the target audience is as diverse as the Military Spouse community. There are certainly some great companies which have come on board with MSEP, but I wonder if all their jobs are in Washington D.C. – I live in a major city and have a Masters degree yet the only options for my zipcode were a sales consultant for a telephone company, a bank teller and babysitting. By taking one of these jobs, I statistically appear as a success story – a Military Spouse who has located a job….but am I really?

Almost every Military Spouse I know has been underemployed at some time in the last 5 years. Many are like me – I left a mid-level management position when I married into the military, and then took a $13 dollar an hour teachers aide position in a small town after unsuccessfully trying to find a mid-level position for 2 months. I want to work and as I see the year ticking away, and the date of my next PCS approaching – I take whatever I can get. I know one of the Front Desk Staff at my local Base Childcare Center has a Masters Degree in Human Relations and the Military Spouse Professionals Forum on Linked In regularly features posts from frustrated Military Spouses who have invested an incredible amount of time and money in higher level education but are unable to find fulfilling employment commensurate with their qualifications. A recent RAND Study on Measuring Underemployment in Military Spouses found that 38% of employed Military Spouse wives are underemployed by educational mismatch compared with only 6% of a representative group of civilian wives. I think this is the elephant in the room – everyone knows it is a problem, but nobody is quite sure what to do about it so we just focus on the numbers of Military Spouses employed or hired instead.

So what can we do to address underemployment? I certainly don’t have all the answers but as Career Minded Military Spouses I think we need to start the conversation on this issue and at least throw some suggestions on the table. Here are my thoughts.

  • Strategically develop some tailored Military Spouse Employment Programs which target different groups within the Military Spouse community. While an online job board may work well for entry-level positions, it may not be as appropriate for some of the middle management and executive level positions that many Military Spouses target. Perhaps a Military Spouse Grad and Post Grad Employment Program could utilize Recruiters who worked individual Military Spouse cases in specific locations and could liaise directly between companies representatives and a Military Spouse who had just received orders.

 

  • Expand the resources and staffing of the Family Employment Readiness Program run through the ACS, FFSC and Airman and Family Readiness Centers in order to empower them to network and advocate directly with the Local Defense Contracting Companies and Local Civilian Employers at the grass roots level, rather than just providing employment counseling and advice.

 

  • Designate a portion of Base Federal and MWR positions at all levels as Designated Military Spouse positions in a similar way to the arrangement that overseas Bases use to advertise positions for Local Military Spouse applicants only.

 

  • Support professional development for all Military Spouses, regardless of educational level or Service Member’s rank. MYCAA is a classic example of program which initially offered a great opportunity for career minded Military Spouses to advance and refine their professional qualifications, but has been scaled back to support basic qualifications for typical entry level positions.

Underemployment of Military Spouses is a difficult but important issue to address as it affects the morale and quality of life of the Military Spouse and their family. Recurrent underemployment of the Military Spouse can become a significant deterrent to the long term retention of the Service Member. As a nation I believe that we also have a moral obligation to ensure that we are setting up our Military Families, who have sacrificed so much, for success.  Many Military Spouses may need or want to become the primary breadwinner following the Service Member’s separation or retirement from service. We must also recognize that some Military Spouses may find themselves as the sole income earner after a death, injury or separation from their partner. A track record of underemployment does not set our Military Families up for long term satisfaction or financial stability.