Making Military Service More Attractive for Modern Spouses
Editor’s Note: This article was written in response to our unofficial support for the Department of Defense’s innovation challenge for talent management. We want to help with this effort and have asked for original, creative ideas that reconsider the status quo, shake widely held assumptions, and take on the conventional wisdom about recruitment and retention.
In 13 years of being married, we have only lived in the same household for three of those years. Why? Army talent management policies.
To be sure, part of this has been our own choice. One of us is a career Army officer, beginning in the infantry with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and now in the acquisitions field contributing to major Army programs such as hypersonics and missile defense. The other is an accomplished tenured professor, who chose some years ago to leave civilian academia to teach at one of the U.S. Air Force’s premier educational institutions not only to be closer to the other but in the hope that we might one day live in the same city. We have chosen to prioritize our individual careers because of our success individually, including the decision to not have children, which would further complicate our situation — we admit this and have no regrets. However, along the way, we have found that Army and Department of Defense policies on spouses serving in different branches of service, let alone within the larger department, are severely lacking, giving no preference in assignments to these types of joint marriages. We believe that if the entire enterprise is to attract and retain quality individuals in the pivotal years ahead, these types of policies should change.
We argue that the Department of Defense should change its policies to adapt to the reality that both spouses are now often working full-time. Not only has cost of living increased, necessitating dual-income families, but more women are entering the workforce and contributing significantly to their household. As a result, military spouses experience high levels of unemployment and underemployment, often leading to couples living separately for job-related reasons. With service-specific policies limited, unstandardized, and not taking into account those working for the department as civilians, the U.S. armed forces should update talent management policies so that spouses can live, work, and earn together, making military service more attractive and realistic for modern spouses.
Current State of Affairs
Individual services do offer programs to help married servicemembers, but they only apply to within-service couples. The Married Army Couples Program mandates that Army couples enrolled in the program must be stationed within 50 miles or one hour of each other (but not necessarily at the same installation) in order to establish a joint domicile. Meanwhile the Air Force offers the assignment of military couples option or, more informally, the “joint spouse” assignment and the Navy has the military couple and single parent assignment policy.
While the parameters of each program vary, they generally prioritize the needs of the service rather than the benefit to servicemembers. These caveats include requirements that the servicemember takes a valid assignment where they are eligible that will not adversely affect career progression and fits within a templated timeline. Required permanent changes-of-station every two to three years further complicates the process for dual military families despite Government Accountability Office findings that fewer moves save the Department of Defense money and increase job satisfaction. Servicemembers are encouraged to participate in the programs but at the mid-career point fewer assignments are available to eligible servicemembers, forcing couples to make hard decisions to sacrifice one career or pursue jobs based on the probability of a joint domicile. This limits the ability for services to truly manage talent with dual-military couples.
The Department of Defense does provide preferential hiring opportunities to military spouses, but spouses must recompete with each permanent change-of-station increasing the instances of unemployment or underemployment, including lost income and delayed career progression. Since the department gives preference to spouses and recognizes the value in keeping families together through their various joint domicile programs, it is logical to include defense civilians and interservice marriages to allow career progression for spouses as well as stability within the department workforce.
Initiatives such as the Army’s Assignment Interactive Module 2.0 have been beneficial to soldiers in picking their own assignments but are not adequate to ensure that talent is properly managed. For one, not everyone is eligible to use this Army program for their next assignment because it is currently restricted to officers. But, perhaps more importantly, most branches maintain that duty station should not be a priority when choosing an assignment, with homesteading frequently frowned upon.
The Department of Defense has also recognized the increased costs of education and housing over the past 50 years and the need for dual-income streams for military families but has yet to propose real solutions to spousal unemployment and underemployment. While this problem does impact retention of current servicemembers, it will also have an impact on recruiting for future generations of servicemembers.
The problem of military spousal employment is well known. The Biden administration’s June 2023 executive order addressing this issue sums it up succinctly: There is a 21 percent unemployment rate among military spouses, one in five military families cite challenges with spousal employment as a reason for leaving, and regular changes of station significantly impact the ability of non-military spouses to advance their own careers. Another study shows that military spouse income is negatively impacted with each change-of-station. Further, these issues are not isolated to active-duty spouses — those in the National Guard and Reserves face challenges as well.
The June executive order introduces several policies aimed at alleviating these concerns. Among them, it mandates the creation of a strategic plan to address spousal employment issues, reinforces telework policies across the federal government for military spouses, increases the number of positions available for preferential spousal hiring, and enhances childcare options. Additionally, it “encourage[es] agencies to collaborate so that a military spouse or military caregiver Federal employee may be placed in another Federal agency position when arrangements to retain a military spouse or military caregiver — including following changes to support continuity of care or relocation due to permanent change-of-station orders for the active-duty servicemember — are unavailable to allow them to continue in their existing position.”
This is no doubt a good start, but several issues are immediately apparent. For one, it encourages but does not require agencies to collaborate. Second, the requirement seems to care little about what the military spouse prefers in their own career. While it is nice to have the option to move to a different agency if possible, not all career paths are amenable to such moves, nor should the spouse be forced into such a move. With 88 percent of respondents in one study reporting that the military lifestyle impacts their ability to find jobs and 90 percent reporting that it negatively impacted their career, this is a widespread problem across the services and across families. If the Department of Defense wants to address this problem, encouraging federal employment is a good start, but making it easier for couples within the department to stay together would be even better. In some cases, these jobs require clearances that provide an additional layer of bureaucracy for spouses to navigate as they seek out new jobs with each move.
Modernization of Social Norms
It is this last point that is perhaps the biggest obstacle to more significant policy changes. The military is an inherently conservative enterprise that, by neglecting the needs of spouses, employment and otherwise, in talent management decisions reinforces traditional family structures that are increasingly strained in the 21st century.
While the military does have excellent pay and benefit packages (particularly for officers), there is an increasing need for two incomes to support a household. When spousal careers are continually interrupted or have never begun, the financial health of the military member may in turn suffer. In an era where the secretary of the Air Force has warned his department about Chinese recruiting efforts, this problem becomes particularly more acute.
Connected to this is a continued assumption about who the breadwinner in a family is and in turn whose career is more important, particularly as we see an increase in well-educated men marrying women with similarly high education levels. We have continually faced such pressures. When one of us (Josh) was in command, the rest of the unit was surprised and a bit confused as to why the other one of us (Wendy) left to take a university position. Wendy has also had to repeatedly correct the assumption that she would leave her current job when her spouse left or that her spouse was in the Air Force generally. And it’s not just on Wendy’s part — Josh’s co-workers are often surprised to hear that he is a geographical bachelor just as much as they are to hear what it is that she does.
We no longer live in a society that must have a male breadwinner or a designated breadwinner at all. Increasingly, both incomes and careers are as important as the other. Modernizing military talent management programs to recognize this is as important to attracting and retaining military members as it is to bring Department of Defense policies into the 21st century. No family should have to be punished because both people want to pursue rewarding and enriching careers.
Recruitment and Retention
It is imperative to modernize joint spouse policies to bring the Department of Defense in line with modern work-life requirements to improve both recruitment and retention. One of the most significant sources of recruitment come from within the military community itself — 79 percent of new recruits report having a family member who served and nearly 30 percent report one of those family members being a parent. However, as a result of the difficulty families and couples have in staying together, military families are now less likely to recommend service to their children because of challenges in spousal employment.
Another factor recruits consider in deciding whether to join the military or not is pay. In a labor market with low unemployment, potential recruits — both officers and enlisted — can make more money in the private sector than in the military. This is especially true in career fields like cyber operations that are desperately needed throughout the Department of Defense today. The military can respond in one of two ways: increase base pay or make it easier for dual income families to live together. With increasing budgetary challenges across the federal government, higher pay is unlikely to come. Therefore, adapting policies is far more cost-efficient in enabling recruitment. While it would be nice for recruits to sacrifice things such as pay to serve their country, it is unrealistic and clearly harmful to recruitment efforts.
More joint spouse friendly policies would also improve retention. Approximately one in five servicemembers leaves their service because of spousal employment issues. We have personally known several Army couples who, after several years, had to make a choice about whose career to prioritize because the ability to serve together was becoming far more challenging. What’s more, in all the cases we know, it was the female spouse who left the service. While we recognize that this is anecdotal evidence (which highlights the dearth of data the services or the department collect on this issue), it still supports the notion that current policies are failing to provide the necessary support to same-service couples, let alone cross-service couples.
The exit of female spouses of military couples not only hurts retention but continues to point out the deficiencies the military has in terms of recruitment of women more generally. Women today generally achieve a higher education and are more physically fit than their male peers, making them excellent recruitment targets. Even if the military can fix this problem and recruit more women, the lack of joint spouse policies that are more effective will still likely decrease their retention later in their careers.
The military’s ability to recruit eligible servicemembers changed dramatically in 1973 with the dissolution of the draft as the department shifted from conscription to an all-volunteer force. This is rather startling when only 23 percent of young Americans are qualified to serve and the services fail to meet recruiting goals. Being able to sustain a viable military is dependent on having qualified servicemembers while only about 0.4 percent of the American population are currently serving on active duty and around 7 percent of the American population have served in the military total. While the recruiting issues have been well documented, if it remains unchanged it could threaten national security. Adopting new joint spouse policies across the Department of Defense would not only help families currently serving but likely increase their propensity to recommend service to their children, enable the recruitment of needed subject-matter experts across the department, and assist in recruiting and retaining women.
While it may be too late for us to benefit, we recommend changing Department of Defense and individual service policies to give greater preference to joint couples serving across the military enterprise, not just within each individual service. In addition to the reasons noted previously — to increase retention, to address spousal employment issues, bring the department in line with modern financial needs and societal norms — there is also a budgetary benefit. While other recruitment and retention policies can be costly, this type of policy is not and would likely save money. In our case, for example, it would have likely saved three change-of-stations and all the costs associated with them. An easy solution would be to slow the rate of moves and allow homesteading, which would provide benefits for spousal employment as well as stabilization for children.
We recognize that there are some challenges to such a policy. For one, the individual services and the department would have to work together to accommodate joint spouses. To this, we respond that there might be little effort needed on the administrative end. As the talent management portal is increasingly utilized, all a servicemember would need to do is preference those jobs that keep them near their spouse’s employment. The presence of a joint spouse could then be considered during the matching process. Alternatively, servicemembers can seek out positions on their own that can accommodate family needs. It is this route that we are currently attempting ourselves, with little help or understanding.
A second challenge is the requirement in many career fields to move every two to three years for professional development. While we understand the reasoning, those leaving military service because of spousal employment issues are being developed only to leave prior to the service seeing the realization of their investment. Other broadening experiences are now possible as well given the increasing use of remote work. Further, there are some servicemembers who have had the ability to homestead for their careers at bases such as Fort Liberty or Fort Moore. What we are suggesting does have precedent.
Changing Department of Defense and service policies to accommodate joint spouses not only increases the chances that a servicemember will stay but raise the overall level of talent throughout the department. Living and serving together shouldn’t have to be this hard.
Joshua Cobb is an active-duty Army acquisitions officer currently assigned to Fort Liberty, NC.
Wendy N. Whitman Cobb, Ph.D., is professor of strategy and security studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. She is the co-author of the forthcoming space policy textbook, Space Policy for the 21st Century.
All views are the authors’ own and not reflective of those of the Department of Defense or any of its entities.