Best Defense

Junior officer retention: Pentagon leaders need to start thinking differently about how to deal with military spouses

Junior officer retention: Pentagon leaders need to start thinking differently about how to deal with military spouses

During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on April 16, 2013. 

By Jesse Sloman

Best Defense office of Junior Officer Issues

Millions of electrons have been spilled in the last few months on the subject of junior officer retention. As a company grade officer in the Marine Corps, I’ve been following the widening debate with great interest. Although assertions of a crisis in the JO community have yet to be proven empirically, the volume of interest this topic has generated speaks to its importance as a national security issue. It’s also clear that questions about retention resonate among my generation of officers, many of whom are currently mulling their own decisions about whether to remain on active duty.

Despite this outpouring, one critical factor in manpower retention has remained unexplored: quality of life for spouses, over 90 percent of whom are women. Relationship status and spousal satisfaction are crucial influences on a servicemember’s decision to stay or leave the armed forces, yet these issues have so far been largely overlooked. As women take on ever greater roles in American professional life — they now make up a larger share of the national work force than men — their attitudes and expectations will be increasingly at odds with the traditional role of the military spouse. This is especially true for the spouses of junior officers, most of whom possess bachelor’s degrees, strong employment prospects, and belong to a generation of women who have been raised with the assumption that they have as much right to long and fulfilling careers as their husbands. I have seen this dynamic firsthand among my peers. Two of the most promising lieutenants I know, including one who graduated at the top of his TBS class, are planning to curtail their military careers primarily out of consideration for their wives.

Consider the difficulties a young educated woman faces when her husband commissions into the armed forces. As she watches her friends enter the workforce and embark on their new careers, she will almost certainly be forced to move to an entirely new community with little in the way of local employment options. If she is lucky enough to find a good job, her excitement will undoubtedly be tempered by the knowledge that within a year or two she’ll be forced to move and start over. Every time she begins a new job search she’ll be competing against not just all the other recently arrived spouses, but also against non-military locals who employers know will not be leaving in the near future.

The numbers attest to the difficulties spouses face in finding employment. A 2004 Rand Corporation study found that military spouses are less likely to be employed than their civilian peers and earn less money when they are employed. This holds true even when they are compared against civilian spouses with similar employability characteristics. Given these obstacles, it’s little wonder that 85 percent of military spouses say they either want or need work. Of those who are employed, it’s not uncommon to find spouses working in positions for which they are manifestly overqualified. I know a former government lawyer currently employed at a nearby unit as a Family Readiness Officer, a job that does not even require a bachelor’s degree.

None of these issues is new for military spouses, but it is surely not lost on them that today they are being largely excluded from one of the most important demographic shifts in American history. As Hanna Rosin, journalist and author of The End of Men, explains: “For the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce [has] tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs…. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools — for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women.”

To its credit, the Department of Defense has taken recent action to try and improve spousal employment with the creation of the Spouse Education and Career Opportunities (SECO) initiative in 2009. SECO is made up of three programs: the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA) tuition assistance program, the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP), and the Military Spouse Career Center. Unfortunately, a 2012 Government Accountability Office report noted that, “DOD is not yet able to measure the overall effectiveness of its spouse employment programs,” so it is impossible to know if they are proving beneficial.

I suspect that, given the obstacles arrayed against it, SECO will prove inadequate to the task of providing JO wives with fulfilling long-term employment. Instead, the military may need to come up with more radical measures, such as reinstituting homesteading and increasing the number of unaccompanied tours to locations suffering from limited employment opportunities. Another option is to ensure that spouses’ careers are given weight when assigning servicemembers to new duty stations. There are significant practical obstacles to both of these ideas, but over time they may grow to be considered preferable to the problems brought on by spousal discontent.

Ultimately, effective solutions will only be possible when there is widespread recognition that the military’s current social model is a legacy of a different time. Today’s young women will be increasingly unwilling to sacrifice their professional ambitions for their husband’s military career. The choice for young officers will become stark: Stay in the military and make their wives unhappy, or get out and give them a chance to pursue their dreams as well. Unless positive measures are taken to increase spousal satisfaction, I fear more and more JOs will choose the latter.

Jesse Sloman is a lieutenant in the Marine Corps currently based in Okinawa, Japan.