Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, commanding officer of Air Station Miami, for 13 years and currently serves as chapter director for Blue Star Families in Miami, Fla.
Written by Shelley Kimball.
There is a sign over my desk that reads, “Every accomplishment starts with the courage to try.” I put it there at the lowest point in my search for a job.
I have not been shy about sharing the fact that I have been unable to find a paying job where I live. I was an assistant professor of journalism at my last job, moving right on target for tenure, when my husband got orders. Within months, I joined the 26 percent of military spouses estimated out of work. I’m not going to lie – being a military spouse out of work feels awful.
Driving away from my office was excruciating. I was leaving my dream job. I was pulling back my anchor and setting myself adrift. And I was scared to death.
I hit the ground running at our new duty station. I am pretty driven when it comes to work, so I set up my job search like a day at work. I was at the computer at an appointed time every day searching. I wrote letters and e-mails to everyone I could think of in academia. They came from so many universities and perspectives, but they all had the same thing to say: the economy was so low that their universities had frozen all positions, and there was nothing on the horizon.
This is when the sign went up over my desk. I laid my head on my desk and cried. More than once. And then I sat up and decided I needed to find a better way.
So I did what many of you have done before me – I got creative. I thought about the things I wished I had more time to do when I worked full time, and so I committed to working with a nonprofit that supports military families. Then I broke apart the skills I used in my dream job and I looked for ways to apply them in other areas. I looked at volunteer opportunities as jobs without a paycheck. Within a few months, I had found volunteer positions that included research and writing: two of the three top skills I use in my occupation.
There is a silver lining to being forced into unemployment. I never would have taken chances and tried new jobs otherwise. This put me on a career path I couldn’t have imagined, and it has taken me to Capitol Hill, the White House, and of course, here with you every other week.
Some statistics about unemployed military spouses like me:
• Our unemployment rates are about three times higher than our civilian counterparts.
• More than half of us, about 68 percent, report being a military spouse has had a negative impact on our careers.
• Of all of the issues facing military families, spouses ranked unemployment in the top two concerns.
• 90 percent of us are underemployed, meaning we have more education and experience than is necessary for the work we are doing.
• We make about 38 percent less money than our civilian counterparts.
For those of you who are currently looking for work, or those of you who worry that you will need to find work at some point in the future, here is some inside information on how to improve your chances. This is straight talk from those in the field – they’re not sugarcoating it.
According to Erin Voirol, the executive director of the Military Spouse Corporate Career Network, in situations like this, it’s all about expectations.
“The biggest issue I see is unrealistic expectations,” Voirol said. “I think part of the problem is they have to understand they have a hurdle to cross. They are going to have to work harder than any other job seeker to stand out.”
Ways to stand out are by making sure a resume is specifically targeted to the company hiring. Update resumes continuously, not months at a time, she said. The details count because employers are overwhelmed by the number of applicants for positions.
“You need to own your job search,” Voirol said. “No one can get your job for you. No one is going to knock on your door and offer you a job.”
Instead, take advantage of the resume building and career preparation offered to military spouses, she said. Go to nonprofits like MSCCN, or to other agencies that provide it, such as the Coast Guard work-life offices that have one-on-one career counselors. They are waiting to help. These agencies employ experts to help with all of the necessary details on perfecting resumes.
Voirol said, in her experience, it is difficult to get a job from a job board. In fact, in an effort to better serve the spouses she helps through MSCCN, she has applied to some of the positions on job boards to see what the process is like. She said about one-quarter of those who find jobs, find them there.
“The other 76 percent need a direct connection into their next job,” she said.
That direct connection comes in the form of networking. Continuously cultivate connections, Voirol said, and it will pay off.
According to Voirol, one of the best ways to network, especially when looking for work, is to volunteer. Not only will volunteering keep job seekers circulating among those who may be able to help them find work, but it also ensures that there are no gaps in resumes during stretches of unemployment. Put those volunteer experiences on resumes as work experience because they use the same skill sets, she said.
“There should never be a time when you have a gap in your resume because you can fill it with something,” Voirol said. “I know it’s hard when you have kids to volunteer, but there are things you can do.”
Voirol suggested volunteering at kids’ schools or finding virtual volunteering jobs one can do from home.
Rodney Whaley, the Coast Guard headquarters spouse employment program manager, also said volunteering can be the best prospect when jobs are scarce.
“Volunteer if you can. With the current job market challenges, employment is a hard thing to nail down and could be frustrating,” Whaley said. “If you have time, volunteering is a great way to add to your resume instead of leaving a gap in employment. It also gives you a chance to explore careers or jobs you might be interested in learning about and pursuing. Finally, sometimes the volunteer job leads to a paying job.”
The Coast Guard partners with the Chamber of Commerce to help spouses with job fairs and mobile careers, Whaley said. For example, Hiring Our Heroes focused on Coast Guard spouses in Puerto Rico at a job fair last October.
The most common question spouses ask Whaley is, “what jobs are available?” Although the Coast Guard does not keep a job board, it does offer 13 transition/spouse employment specialists in Health, Safety, and Work-Life offices. They are available to help with reviewing resumes and interviewing techniques to prepare spouses for the job search.
Meg O’Grady, a senior program analyst with the Department of Defense Office of Military Community & Family Policy, recently participated in a DoDLive Blogger’s Roundtable to discuss military spouse hiring initiatives. She stressed three things: take action, network as much as possible, and be persistent. She said to start by looking for the resources available to unemployed military spouses, and then use them.
“The most important action to take is just to take some action,” O’Grady said. “Really understand that you have to look for the opportunities available to you, and not only the opportunities, but use all of the resources that are available to you.”
When applying for positions, O’Grady said, be open to unexpected opportunities. Find ways to apply work skills to positions that might be outside the box.
In a time when many employers expect online applications, find a way to set yourself apart. O’Grady said this is where networking is especially helpful. She said to research any connections or ways to personally get in touch with the company or the person in charge of making hiring decisions. Send a cover letter directly that includes your intention to follow up. Then, within a week or two, follow up with a phone call or another letter to check on the status of the application.
Another tip for standing out may be to identify yourself as a military spouse, O’Grady said. If the employer has partnered with Hiring Our Heroes, the Military Spouse Employment Partnership’s Career Portal, or any of the other military-friendly employment services, then be sure to include information about your military connection, O’Grady said. Having a series of jobs, or moving often, is not as stigmatizing to employers as it once was, she said.
Most importantly, O’Grady said, is to remain persistent in the search. The jobs may not come quickly or easily, but try not to get disheartened.
“That persistence piece is really, really important,” O’Grady said. “And I know it is easy to get discouraged because I’ve been there, where you’re applying and you’re applying and it just doesn’t seem to be working for you. I would say persistence goes a long way.”
Now I want to hear from you. What has your employment experience been like? Do you live in an area with a lot of available jobs or few? And how have you navigated it? Share your experiences below so we can learn from you.
Additional resources for Coast Guard spouses:
CG SUPRT Education and Career Center: There are four sections of this career site: explore, educate and train, job readiness and connect and network. Within the sections are information about planning for a career, resume building and interviewing skills, licensing information, and career networking partnerships that include Coast Guard spouses.
Military Spouse Corporate Career Network: MSCCN provides job training and placement to military spouses, spouses of retired military, and caregivers to the war wounded as well as to military personnel. This nonprofit organization carries memoranda of understanding with all military branches.
Blue Star Careers: Blue Star Families offers a resume-building toolkit that encourages military spouses to describe their volunteer experiences in corporate terms. It also includes links to Blue Star Networks, which are Facebook networks that connect military spouses in three popular career paths: education, health care and entrepreneurship.
Hiring our Heroes: Hiring our Heroes, which is part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has been sponsoring job fairs for veterans and military spouses since 2011. Employers who have committed to hiring vets and military families partner with HoH and attend job fairs to find prospective employees. A tip, when searching for career fairs nearby, make sure to look for the one that include spouses.
Military Spouse Employment Partnership’s Career Portal: There are more than 300,000 job openings on this job searchable board. It is also helpful in showing which employers have committed to hiring military spouses.
CareerOneStop: Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, this site provides all job seekers, not just military spouses, with information on finding employment.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.