(NEW YORK) — Michelle Aikman agonized for more than a year before agreeing to marry her military boyfriend. It wasn’t that Robert Aiken wasn’t handsome enough, kind enough, clever enough.
Aikman, 34, an ambitious young engineer from Littleton, Colo., just didn’t know whether she could accept the limitations her now-husband’s service in the Air Force would place on her career.
“I busted my hump to have every opportunity available,” Aikman said in a recent interview, “and as soon as I married into this life, that was all gone. That’s not acceptable to me.”
Aikman, who got married in 2002, isn’t alone.
A whopping 90 percent of female military spouses –- more than 600,000 people –- are either unemployed or underemployed, according to a recent study.
They endure frequent employment gaps and command paychecks about 38 percent lower than their civilian counterparts, the Military Officers Association of America study says.
The Department of Defense “recognizes and appreciates the challenges and sacrifices of our military families” and “is working across the board to provide a broad spectrum of career opportunities … for a range of education and experience levels,” DOD spokeswoman Joy Crabaugh told ABC News.
But despite the Defense Department’s efforts, which include career counseling and an online employment portal with 28,000 spouse profiles and an average of 150,000 jobs available daily, many spouses say they have come up empty-handed.
Almost 60 percent of military wives fear their partner’s active-duty status scares off potential employers wary of investing in short-term hires, according to the study. About 95 percent of military spouses are women.
“As soon as [employers] find out you’re connected to the military, the conversation is over. Their brain automatically goes to, ‘I’m not going to waste my time,’” said Aikman, who eventually became so frustrated that she abandoned engineering and began helping military families navigate career challenges full-time.
Like the more than 40 percent of military spouses interviewed for the study, Aikman, a mother of two, did not want to disclose her military connection during job interviews.
“At first I thought being honest and upfront … was the best way to approach it. But that always ended the conversation,” she said. “As I became aware of the response, I would try to avoid disclosing that information, which would get me past a certain point … but it comes out eventually.”
Even when spouses don’t mention their partners’ career, employment gaps, frequent job changes and even cross-country moves scream “military spouse.” Though 20 states prohibit employers from asking questions about marital status, some human resources managers still do.
“Employers are trying to protect themselves,” said Kaye Putnam, 27, a marketing professional from Laurium, Mich., and the spouse of an Army captain, “but I think they’re missing out on a huge talent opportunity.”
Because they relocate frequently, Putnam said military spouses often excel at building relationships and quickly establishing credibility. And because they know they don’t have much time to make an impact, she pointed out, military spouses tend to be more productive than other new hires.
Still, it’s often difficult to convince employers that military spouses are worth the investment, even if they’re short term.
Those that do find jobs after a permanent change of station, or PCS, often don’t stay long enough to earn seniority and face a string of lateral moves rather than a series of promotions.
Many military spouses opt for what Putnam calls “PCS-proof careers” – going into business for themselves or finding a job that allows them to work remotely. But they may struggle to build robust professional networks when they’re uprooted every few years.
If telecommuting isn’t an option, the Department of Defense encourages military husbands and wives to consider “portable careers” such as marketing, teaching, nursing or web designing. But many spouses believe their career options shouldn’t be limited by their partners’ service.
“They push for mobile jobs, like being a nurse or a teacher,” Aikman said. “Well, I didn’t want to be a nurse or a teacher. I wanted to be an engineer.”
(Though Aikman says engineering careers rarely survive multiple cross-country moves, the Defense Department classifies engineering as “portable,” the DOD’s Crabaugh said.)
Even for those with in-demand portable careers, relocation isn’t easy. More than half of active-duty military spouses work in fields that require state licensing or certification, and about 72 percent of licensed military spouses has had to renew their license after a cross-country move, a costly, time-consuming and often frustrating process, according to the Military Officers Association study.
Asher Weinberg, 45, an attorney from New York City married to a Navy captain, estimates he spends about $1,000 to $2,000 to study for and take the bar exam each time he relocates. The six-month waiting periods cost him thousands more in lost wages, he said.
With a little push from first lady Michelle Obama and her military family-support initiative, Joining Forces, many states have enacted license portability statutes designed to make moves easier for military spouses. Some states honor out-of-state military spouses’ licenses while others grant temporary credentials or expedite the re-certification process. But the rules are not uniform and do not include every kind of license.
Such barriers are especially overwhelming when spouses’ partners are deployed or absent. The vast majority of military spouses say they either “need to work” or “want to work,” according to the Military Officers Association study.
“Work was the thing that kept me sane,” Putnam Said. “It gave me a chance to work on improving my life even when my personal life was on hold.”
Aikman agreed. “I love my work. I need it for me. I need to commit myself to something other than just my family,” she said. “My family is my number-one priority, but if I don’t have my professional life, I have lost my identity.”
The psychological toll isn’t the only problem. Critics worry that military spouse underemployment may be one reason nearly 5,000 active-duty military families are food stamp eligible.
The Defense Department isn’t blind to military spouses’ employment challenges. But resources are inadequate and ill publicized, spouses say.
The DOD spouse employment suggestion page reads like one of a hundred other job-seeker guides. It advises spouses to “consider volunteering,” “go to a job fair,” “check the local community websites for job listings” and “find out if there are training or educational opportunities available.”
“It’s great to be enthusiastic, but you have to be realistic,” one government-sponsored website advises.
More than 46 percent of military spouses are either “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with DOD-sponsored employee assistance programs, while only 12 percent said the programs helped them find a job, according to the MOAA study.
The Defense Department, however, says spouses using DOD’s Spouse Employment and Career Opportunity Center “report an overall satisfaction rate of 95 percent.”
If the Defense Department is letting military spouses fall through the cracks, the private sector must pick up the slack, some spouses say. Business people and lawmakers alike are passionate about hiring veterans. Patriotism sells. But hiring military spouses isn’t as sexy.
“People understand what veterans have given but I don’t think people go beyond that,” Aikman said. “They think the spouse doesn’t deserve the same amount of respect.”
Even companies that profess a commitment to hiring military spouses have policies that effectively disqualify candidates with frequent job changes or employment gaps. Aikman said. In order to be military-spouse friendly, companies must change the way they train human resource specialists.
“The talking is there, I’m just not seeing the action yet,” she said.
Aikman’s career trajectory has been tough. And for her husband, that’s just another headache in a slew of military stressors adding to the burden of protecting the homeland.
Once again, it seems, it has fallen to Maj. Aikman to confront a problem no one else seems to want to consider.
“When I fall apart, he’s had to pick up the pieces and tell me to keep going,” Aikman said of her husband.
But as in his military service, she added. “He always steps up to the plate.”
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio