The Mil Life: Keeping spouses' careers, education off the chopping block

Jun 29, 2011

Chat with military wives and activists Stephanie Himel Nelson and Sue Hoppin about what military spouses can do to keep careers and educational goals in tact while maintaining the military lifestyle, including multiple deployments. Ask questions, get advice, share your own experience and weigh in on this military topic!

Related: The Mil Life: The hardest part of being in a military family

Check out these military resources for you and your family!

Blue Star Families
Military Officers Association of America
Gold Star Wives

Welcome to the second installment of the Mil Life!

This week we'll be talking with Sue Hoppin about military spouse employment and education. Sue Hoppin is the founder of the National Military Spouse Network, an organization supporting MilSpouses balancing their own dreams with the military lifestyle.  Sue has literally written the book on military family life. No, seriously!  She is the author of “A Family’s Guide to the Military” from the popular Dummies series.  Sue's career and passion is helping military spouses to network and to develop professionally, so hit her with your questions!

We welcome your questions, but we also want to hear how you manage to keep your educational and career goals from staying on track as a MilSpouse.

Thanks for the kind introduction, Stephanie.  Happy to be here and looking forward to answering some questions, but also interested in hearing what other military spouses have been experiencing out there.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to be with you here today.  If you're in the DC area, we hope that you'll join us for our next quarterly networking event on Monday, August 1st.  You can register and find more information at  Always a great opportunity to network with potential employers and other military spouses in a relaxed atmosphere.  In November, we're also hosting an all day Military Spouse Employment Summit geared toward developing portable careers.  Hope to see you there! 

How can I keep a good budget for the family without depriving my family of certain things?

Great question. Developing the budget is a good start.  Take a look at what money is coming in, your fixed costs (rent/mortgage, utilities, car payment, etc...)  to get a clearer picture of how much discretionary income you have each month.  Tracking your spending will also help develop a more accurate budget over time.  Use a simple spreadsheet or free programs available online that will help you keep track of your money and budget for those bigger ticket items.  When developing your budget, pay yourself first - don't forget to contribute to that emergency fund and the TSP.

Sue's spot on!  The only thing I would add is that, when you're developing your budget, make sure you include absolutely everything, including those $3 lattes. The small stuff adds up and, by keeping close track of your smaller expenses, you'll be surprised at how much easier it is to stay on track.

Should a milspouse mention on a resume  that we are "married" to the military so that a potential employer understands why we have job hopped so much?

Always a touchy subject, probably best handled during the interview process.  Our resumes do tend to be a bit fragmented due to frequent relocations, but a combination (skills) resume as opposed to a chronological resume will allow you to highlight your skills and achievements in a more prominent manner.  When the question does come up, use your varied experience to your benefit by talking about how you've been able to gather best practices from a variety of different organizations and experiences.  Take heart, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American holds 11 jobs between the ages of 18 - 44, which makes us look pretty stable!

Love's Sue's idea of a skills based resume, but the topic of when and how often you've changed jobs will almost certainly come up. It's something I always ask about when I'm interviewing potential employees.

But addressing it head on and emphasizing the positive will come across well in any interview. Be confident about yourself and your skills, those gained in your career and as a MilSpouse!

Of all your years immersed in the military lifestyle, what one piece of advice comes to mind that you would share to spouses trying to advance their careers?

Be open minded.  You might miss a great opportunity because you have it fixed in your mind that you need to have a specific job.  I always thought I wanted to work as an intelligence analyst, but fell into working at a military non-profit spearheading their military spouse outreach initiatives - and never looked back!  I never thought that something I was so passionate about (military spouse and family issues) would lead me to a career path so different from the one I started on.

You can never have too much education. I think the more educated you are, the easier it can be to continue advancing your career as you move and to create and find more flexible career choices.

Hi .. you mention that Sue was honored by Military Spouse magazine -- why not give the link as a resource ( and the Facebook Page as well for current and social media?  I hope you will -- they are both great resources for information about educations and more and our 2011 MSOY has a very direct focus on milspouse education opportunities. Thanks!

Thanks for providing the link!

In regards to childcare, should military spouses feel obligated to stay at home while their active duty member is on deployment?

Whether or not to work or stay home during a deployment can be a touchy subject. But it shouldn't be an obligation, rather a choice made with your family and its special needs in mind. Let's face it, many of us simply don't have that luxury as much as might want it. And others may simply not want to derail their own careers every few years. The last DoD survey showed that 86% of milspouses want or need to work.

I absolutely agree with Stephanie.  The decision to stay home or work is entirely dependent on what works for you and your family. 

Any suggestions for when the spouse is an attorney, is not licensed in the state of the next move and doesn't relish the idea of taking bar exams repeatedly? Reciprocity is limited in this country.

As a fellow attorney, I feel your pain. This is an issue so many MilSpouses who are professionals face. Unfortunately, I don't know that reciprocity is going to happen nationally very quickly since every state regulates their attorneys so closely.

However, there are some options for you that don't involve working in a traditional law firm. Some corporations will hire in house counsel that aren't necessarily licensed in that state. Government agencies are flexible with that as well. Or, you could take the plunge and start your own business doing contract legal work. This is actually what I did, the first few years after leaving my law firm while Blue Star Families was getting off the ground. I worked for attorneys doing legal research and writing on a contract basis. I've also worked with firms that have loved their MilSpouses so much, they entered into a similar research/writing arrangement while the MilSpouse worked remotely. So if you want to continue practicing law, no need to despair the moment you get your orders!

Yes, it's always going to be more challenging than the straight career path you can sometimes have if you stay in one place, but we're military spouses and we find a way to make it work, don't we? Good luck to you.


Can you talk about the online resources available for military spouses trying to find jobs?

The DoD is announcing the Military Spouse Employment Partnership today as we speak, so look for more robust online resources through their sites soon.  My favorite online resource for military spouses trying to find jobs is actually one that is not military-centric.  LinkedIn is a great resource for not just finding jobs, but also for getting connected to that job through your networks - an invaluable tool for military spouses as we move around.  There are other resources available depending on your industry.  If you're looking for non-profit jobs, sites such as are a great starting point.  My best tip for you though is that you have to take it offline as well.  Use online resources as a tool, but don't forget about getting out there and networking.  Join a professional organization in your industry.  Those connections you make will help you get to that hidden job market.  For example, in DC, Women in Government Relations has a robust members' only job board.

At the end of this chat, I'll post a short list of employment and education resources for military spouses as well.

I'm about to enter into the military lifestyle with my hubby-to-be. What's the first obstacles I should expect as a military spouse when it comes to finding a career that suits me, and our lifestyle? Do those initial obstacles ever go away?

I'm going to try not to sound like a broken record today, but moving will probably be your first obstacle. If you're still working on an education, it can be hard to finish up your credit hours while your husband/wife moves across the country or overseas. And then once you've begun working, you can expect to move more frequently. But as Sue mentioned earlier, people switch jobs and careers much more frequently now. You won't stick out as much as you'd think. Plus, a MilSpouse can't be beat when it comes to flexibility, grace under pressure, and moving mountains on a moment's notice. If you can emphasize this to potential employers, you'll be golden!

One benefit to moving is that you will gain professional contacts all over the country.  While that might not seem helpful immediately, trust me when I tell you that 20 years from now those contacts will be priceless!  Good luck!

It can be frustrating with the first couple of moves to get the lay of the land.  You're learning to navigate military culture as a spouse while looking for a job.  Those initial obstacles do diminish over time as you develop a good support system and knowledge base.  When you're at the Family Support Center (Airmen and Family Support Center, Fleet and Family Support, Army Community Services, etc....) for that inprocessing, walk over to the spouse employment folks and see what kind of resources they have for you.  One of the best things I did was to take the slew of assessments online that were available for free.  This allowed me access some counseling time with one of the employment specialists and we talked through some of the challenges and opportunities.  Talking to other military spouses who are already working and pursuing fulfilling careers was also a huge help.  No sense in re-inventing the wheel.  Your best resource in this military lifestyle will be other military spouses who have been there, done that.

In your opinion, what is the most difficult challenge facing military spouses when it comes to obtaining a job? When it comes to maintaining a career? Do you have any advice on how to overcome these challenges?

I think the biggest challenges we all face are related to moving and deployments. It can be difficult to maintain a career track when you move every two to three years, essentially having to start over with local professional contacts and/or clients every time.  (Not to mention finding a job in this economy.)

But, I have to say that I think technology is making it easier for all of us.  Telecommuting, even from half way across the country, is now a viable option for many of us. It's easy to keep in touch with the office no matter where you are. Not every comapny has embraced the "virtual" job market, but I firmly believe that that is where we are heading.

I think the greatest challenge facing military spouses in maintaining a career is balancing the career and the military lifestyle.  As we progress and gain more responsibilities, demands on our time increase (whether it's longer hours or more travel out of state/country).  That can be challenging to balance at times with a deployment since many of us don't have the luxury of family close by.  Managing expectations and getting a good support system in place will help mitigate many of these challenges.  Easier said than done, I know.

It should be Military Spouses not military wifes but thats the WPs liberal anti military liberal bias. Also believe it or not in 2011 there are couples who are both active duty in the military. My spouse was in the Army until recently. Oh what fun it was for me to be stereotyped as the spouse of an E7 by her CO, XO and E9 and E8's. Many of them lost big time chances for civilian employment since I am CEO of medium size DOD contractor. Commander's calls were hilarious for me as was the time I let my wife drive my $300K Aston Martin DBS into the office. Even better I am a retired USN Navy Captain retired SEAL. Things have changed some since my dad was officer in the USN in late 50's and early 60's. but the military is stilled filled with morons and incompetent fools.

I believe the title does say military spouses if you look closely. You may have read the title too quickly.

But you do bring up a good point about the challenges of being a male military spouse. You could probably teach us all a thing or two!

Would it be in our interest as spouses to find a job on a base?

Looking for a job on base is a great alternative.  In addition to the GS positions available, there are NAF opportunities.  Are you familiar with Janet Farley's book, "The Military Spouse's Complete Guide to Career Success"?  She explores the ins and outs of all your options in a clear, concise manner.  She did a great series for the National Military Spouse Network on portable careers.  

Where would you suggest we start when we establish our own business? I'm lucky, the local women's business chapter has classes, but some smaller towns and counties may not have such a resource. Do you have any ideas of where else to start?

The Small Business Association has a lot of great resources that you should check out: SBA

Also be sure to check with you local chamber of commerce and your local department of taxation or revenue. I know that the City of Chesapeake, where I live, has a lot of information about the technical details of starting a business on their website. 

I also recommend that you find a good accountant in your area that works regularly with small businesses.  He or she can be your best resource and make sure you avoid many of the pitfalls that young businesses encounter.

I agree with Stephanie.  The SBA is a great resource.  SCORE is another program (funded through a cooperative with the SBA) that provides online mentoring, workshops, templates and tools. 

Also research what small business courses are available in your local area.  Here in Northern Virginia, the Community Business Partnership offers everything from writing a winning business plan to small business accounting for very reasonable prices.   Community colleges would be a nother great resource.

My husband and I are on the verge of getting out of the military. Will the resources dry up after we are out? Where do we turn for help?

It depends on the benefit.  Take advantage of what you can before you get out by attending the TAP seminar.  Once you're out of the service, organizations like The Military Officers Association of America continue to offer resources such as career fairs to all servicemembers and their families whether they're active duty or retired.  

The US Chamber of Commerce is also doing a series of veterans and military spouse career fairs across the country right now. The next is one planned for July 10, 2011 in Los Angeles. You can find registration info here:

As a former recruiter, I think it's best to address it in the resume. You DO want to get an interview, and many hiring managers or recruiters will discard a resume that shows a lot of movement (which they equate to lack of dedication). Unless you teach (always in demand), or something in the resume gives it away (Fort Ord, Quantico), be upfront in saying why you've moved so much.

As a recruiter, what do you think about addressing it in a cover letter? I think it's a great way to "handle" the message and emphasize the benefits you can bring to the job.

Hi Stephanie and Sue, I'd like to hear your thoughts about options for professionals who have already established themselves in a career field. Many of us are passionate about our professions and have spent lots of money and time on pursuing education and building our careers. There are not many resources for those of us not interested in transitioning to more portable careers. Have you heard about initiatives that might encourage and support telework, independent consultancies, and other methods that would allow professionals to continue in their chosen fields? Thanks so much for your answers.

I wish I had a good answer for this question too!  Unfortunately, I haven't heard many concrete plans for this yet. I know that the federal government (as well as many local governments) encourage telework, but it's something that's still gaining acceptance. Personally, I've been consulting and working "virtually" for so long now, that it seems strange to me that everyone hasn't embraced it.  But many companies and organizations still stubbornly hold on to "face time" in the office.

I do believe that if you have the education and the experience and you can't find the job you want, you can create it. Consultancy is great for this and your frequent moving will  help you because you'll already have contacts across the country.

The telecommuting trend is on an upswing.  When you look at this list of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, you'll notice that 79 of them allow their employees to telecommute at least 20% of the time.  Even government agencies are jumping on board.  The US Patent and Trademark Office as well as the NIH are two agencies that offer telecommute.  I think technology is driving alot of this and culture is catching up.  Look for more initiatives to encourage telecommuting.

I wonder if the Navy SEAL realizes how demeaning his entire post came off in regards to his wife - a lowly E7 to his magnificence who is lucky enough to be allowed to drive her husband's ridiculously expensive toys to make some kind of point to her superior officers. It must be embarrassing to have people make assumptions that you are only the spouse of an E7 but the condescending attitude it's also incredibly insulting to all military members ranked lower than you, including your wife. Yeesh.

Good point.

Hi, A friend of mine is the significant other of a career military person. However, they are both women, so everything is, by necessity, in the closet. My friend's partner is being deployed to Afghanistan soon, and my friend is having a very difficult time figuring out how to get any kind of support for this type of situation. Do you have any suggestions for the same-sex partners of military people? Also, do you think there will be more resources available once DADT has been removed? Thank you!

I think there will be more resources once DADT is gone. My biggest recommendations would be exactly the same for your friend as they would for any other military spouse. Stay flexible, seek other professionals in the same career field for advice, build your professional network, and stay sane!

Why is it liberal to assume only men serve? Sounds fundamentally conservative to me. PS--it's NOT a partisan issue.

According to the DoD, 95% of the 1.2 million military spouses are women.

I think there was one tiny nugget in the earlier rant to take away. And that is that 5% of spouses are male and their experiences may be completely different.  Of course, that kind of got lost in all the rest of it....

I have heard the term "portable careers" thrown around in numerous situations since I have become a military spouse. I am a teacher and was told that I could go anywhere and teach. This has not been the case and I have had an extremely difficult time finding a job and also hitting roadblocks with getting certified each place my husband and I are stationed. It is costly and time consuming. Any suggestions or advice about the education field?

This is one of those questions I wish I had the perfect answer for. Unfortunately, you're right.  It is hard and there are significant obstacles to licensing whenever you move. Plus, with education budgets across the country facing cuts, the job market for teachers can be challenging.

My best suggestion is to remain flexible. Don't rule out jobs that are outside of the traditional classroom that you're used to. For example, instead of teaching math in high school, you could look for opportunities at a technical school or community college.  If you're an elementary school teacher, check out organizations that tutor or assist children outside of the classroom. 

I know it's not a magic bullet, but flexibility can help you keep your skills sharp if you can't find or obtain the job you want.

DoD has long recognized the challenges faced by military spouses who are forced to re-certify with every move.  The DoD State Liaison Office has been working to try to educate states on the challenges faced by military spouses in fields that require licenses and/or certifications.  Their initiatives have gained more steam in recent months with the feedback coming out of the town hall events taking place on installations with representatives from Treasury.  Earlier this year, Mrs. Holly Petraeus was named to head the office of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to bolster financial literacy and protect the interests of service members and their families.  A topic that keeps coming up at these town hall meetings is the frustration encountered by military spouses in supposedly "portable careers" who are finding it challenging to move, re-certify/get a new license, find a job within the span of 2-3 year before they move again.  The DoD State Liaison Office is working with states to make it easier for military spouses to maintain their licenses and certifications as they move from state to state.  Make sure you plug in to the initiative and provide feedback when they ask for it.  These are the same folks who were able to push through the Interstate Compact on Education Opportunity for Military Children, so let's help them get some traction on this military spouse employment issue.

Does that come with the aluminium-foil hat?

OK, that did make me laugh!

Thank you for doing this chat --very informative. What do you think will happen with the convergence of remote working and military spouse career initiatives? I know more and more military spouses who are being allowed by their companies to keep their jobs and just work online in their spouse's next duty station. What is the future of professional women working from home as it applies to military spouses?

I think you've already said it!  Working virtually is where I think many of us are heading. While some employers are still resistant, the risk of losing a valued employee can sometimes drag them kicking and screaming into the year 2011!

For example, at my old law firm, when one MilSpouse moved from Norfolk to Florida when her husband PCSd, the firm decided to keep her on. She did research and writing for the firm remotely for several years. It was a great deal for the firm as well, because they didn't need to recruit and train a replacement, and they kept a valued employee.

I have my fingers crossed that eventually everyone will get there!

Some examples of real life spouses who were able to move with their jobs: a friend of ours is a foreign born spouse licensed to practice law in France.  He received a Masters here in the states before looking for a job.  It took him awhile to find the perfect job working for an international corporation.  He was in the job for less than a year before his wife received orders.  He did the research and put together a proposal on how he could continue to work for the DC based company by telecommuting from NM the majority of the time with quarterly trips to the home office.  He was successful and was able to move with his job.

Another one of of our friends is a miltiary fiancee who works for one of the defense contractors.  She took the same route and was able to move with her job to AK.  So, as you say, it does happen.  I think the trends in telecommuting are on the upswing and we should be seeing  more opportunities for everyone to work in a flexible work environment in the future.

How do we as a country get civilian employers to better understand the military lifestyle? I do not think the average civilian employer understands the financial and emotional challenges of becoming a single parent and then reverting back to married life on an annual basis; how PCS moves impact our careers; how even when our servicemembers are home, we often still have to operate as single parents; and, most importantly, how valuable all of this experience can be to their company/organization.

I think it's a gradual process and we lead by example.  The best way to show employers what an asset military spouses can be is by actually being a great asset.  You may be paving the way for the MilSpouse who comes along 2 years after you, but I have to believe that it helps.

Also, keep in mind that there are a lot of single parents out there. While our MilFam challenges are certainly very different, I think even an employer who has never had a MilSpouse working for the organization before could relate and understand if you compare it to a single parent situation.

I think unfortunately, that's it's all about the bottom line.  We as a country and as military spouses need to do a better job of educating employers about the skills and traits that military spouses bring to the table - why we make such great employees.  Hire military spouses because it's good for your bottom line.  Then they might be open to hearing about what makes a military spouse friendly employer.

I read a question above and my throat closed up. I wouldn't even know where to begin responding to someone saying the military was full of incompetent fools. I'm sure I'll encounter that type of attitude all the time and throughout my professional career- whats your recommendation on keeping your cool and responding the right way?

Correct misinformation but then project the message you want people to hear.  In other words, ignore, ignore, ignore!  Ranting may make you feel better in the short term, but if you take the high road people will notice and respect you for it. And it's more professional.

When interacting with clients, at times questions come about my family. When I say I am a military spouse, I can almost see my professional credibility float away with the next moment. The military spouse role becomes prevalent almost immediately, I get thanked for my spouse's service and then the questions about the business at hand get tossed off to my nearest co-worker. I have to find ways to squeeze myself back into being relevant and to overcome their misconceptions.... to the point that I rarely divulge that my husband is in the military unless the conversation goes to a place where I need to. Can the two identities (of being a professional and a military spouse) ever really compliment each other, without resorting to the "I'm flexible, I'm change tolerant", etc, etc?

I think this is a problem many women face, not just military spouses. It can be more difficult for women to maintain that aura of professionalism once family comes up in a way that isn't as much of an issue for men.  (Of course, now I'm sure someone is going to jump down my throat for that statement, but this is just my personal experience.)

I think you change people by continuing to do what you do - being professional, doing a great job, and working to keep yourself in the loop.

There are so many great questions we didn't get to this week, but I hope you'll all be back next week!

Looking back on your time in the military and on your careers, what was your favorite part about having both? I'm trying to decide if it's even worth my time to split my energy into a career and being a military spouse.

There are so many wonderful things about the military lifestyle, but I think the friendships you make are key. Whether personal or professional, you'll get to know people from across the country and possibly beyond.

Looking back now, the consulting work that I've done would not have been possible without all of those contacts and all of that moving.

I spent the first 14 years of military life working odd jobs and volunteering.  Looking back, I wouldn't have traded that for anything.  Strategic volunteering offered me the flexibility to be there for our son when my husband was constantly deployed and was a great springboard for the career opportunities that came later.  Again, it's all in what's best for you and your family. 

It's true that military wives and military husbands face different challenges and are interested in hearing about different things? In your professional opinion would it be worth it to have two separate networks/organizations: One for wives, and one for husbands?

I don't think so.  I think the career challenges we face are more similar than different.  I do, however, think that men may have it a bit harder because of societal assumptions. Employers might not think twice about a woman who follows her husband at the expense of her own career, but would they all treat a man in the same situation differently?  I'd like to think that the answer is no, but I'm not sure what the reality is.

Actually, I'd really like to hear from some male spouses on this one!  If you're out there, please tell us your thoughts.

That's it for today!

Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation on military spouse employment and education. We've had some interesting comments!

Thank you, as well, to Sue Hoppin for joining us today and sharing her wealth of career knowledge with us. Please join us next week too!

Here are a few of the resources I gathered for today's chat:


Spouse Employment Resources:

National Military Spouse Network:


Military Spouse Employment Partnership:


Military Spouse Corporate Career Network:


Education Resources:

MyCAA (My Career Advancement Account):


MyCAA fact sheet:


Changes to the GI Bill coming down the pike:


Spouse scholarships:


Military OneSource education and career resources:

Thanks again for the opportunity to chat with you today.  I hope that you'll connect with the National Military Spouse Network on Facebook or on our website.  Hope to see you at our networking events!  Thanks, Stephanie for the opportunity to co-host today's chat with you.

In This Chat
Stephanie Himel-Nelson
Stephanie Himel-Nelson is the communications director for Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit supporting military families. She left her career as an attorney to advocate for military families three years ago and hasn't looked back. Stephanie grew up in the military as an Air Force "brat" and she is still immersed in the military life. Stephanie's husband recently retired after 20 years in the Navy and her brother, a former Army soldier, is now serving in the Ohio National Guard. She lives with her husband and two boys, ages 5 and 6, in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Sue Hoppin
Sue Hoppin is the founder and president of the National Military Spouse Network, a professional development and networking organization supporting military spouses who must balance their own dreams and ambitions with the military lifestyle. In 2007, Sue co-authored, “A Family’s Guide to the Military” for the popular Dummies series. Before founding the NMSN, Sue served as the first deputy director for spouse outreach for the Military Officers Association of America, charged with creating and spearheading military spouse initiatives for the 370,000 member association. In recognition of her accomplishments, Military Spouse Magazine named Sue on both their 2007 and 2008 Who’s Who of Military Spouses list recognizing those who have made significant contributions in the military community for all military spouses; making her the only person to be named on the list two years in a row. Sue holds a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of Denver and a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Oklahoma.
Recent Chats
  • Next: