Transition May Mean Back to Work for Spouses

Ret. Col. Walter Herd, Army Transition Division director at the Human Resources Command Center of Excellence in Fort Knox, Kentucky, made an impromptu visit with attendees of an SFL-TAP workshop at Schofield Barracks. (U.S. Army/Karen A. Iwamoto)
Ret. Col. Walter Herd, Army Transition Division director at the Human Resources Command Center of Excellence in Fort Knox, Kentucky, made an impromptu visit with attendees of an SFL-TAP workshop at Schofield Barracks. (U.S. Army/Karen A. Iwamoto)

Transition is newly on your horizon. Whether it is a year out or just months away, there are a few financially responsible things spouses need to do today for their families.

None of these Transition To-Dos are particularly easy, but they are all important. In fact, they might be the most important part of holding down the homefront you have ever done.

The first thing to do?

"No matter how hard it is, consider going back to work," said Army wife Stephanie. At first, Stephanie didn't see her family's livelihood on the chopping block anytime soon.

"I'm a stay-at-home mom, and he was going to be a career soldier," she said. "That was the plan."

The Army didn't agree. As transitioning families know all too well, plans can change without notice. Be ready.

Step One: Start Talking About The Money. Now

The biggest change transition will bring will be the absence of that comforting paycheck on the 1st and 15th that has kept your bank account afloat throughout your military life.

The end of that paycheck is accompanied by some very sobering statistics. Across the board, veterans face an unemployment rate of 2.7%. For post-9/11 veterans, the 2017 rate stood at 3.6%. Think about where your family fits into those numbers and, no matter how hard it is, be realistic. Those numbers might affect you.

Your service member is probably deeply aware of that. Deeply -- to the point he might not want to talk about it.

"My husband hates having the money talks," Stephanie said. "But you must. When they're feeling rejected by the military and like his sense of self is destroyed, it's hard to talk about unemployment. It makes me feel bad. But once that last paycheck arrives, it might be the last for a while."

Step Two: Lighten Their Burden and Readdress Your Role

As the saying goes, the best offense is a good defense, so while there is still a paycheck hitting your bank account every month, sit down with your service member and determine what you can do to contribute to the fiscal comfort of your family before that income disappears.

It might be something simple: cutting down the hours you run the AC in the summer, driving less, making fewer trips to Target. Simple measures can make a huge difference financially, so be amenable to them. But put bigger options on the table, too.

"Really talk about whether or not you should be looking for work even if you're happy being a full-time mom," Stephanie said. "I didn't want to leave the kids, but it didn't make sense for him to bear the entire responsibility of the family. So I'm looking too."

Related: Husbands Say 'Get a Job, Military Wife'

For some, splitting the income and domestic responsibilities 50/50 may no longer work, and the stay-at-home mom or part-time employed spouse might have to consider full-time work.

For working spouses, the conversation might center on your career: Can your family survive on your income through your spouse's job search? Are you willing to move someplace where your spouse might have greater earning potential even if it sacrifices your job?

These are the tough questions, but they are the ones to answer as soon as transition is on the horizon. The sooner, the better.

"When you have a regular PCS, it feels different. You quit your job and that's normal. You're expected to quit. In this context, it feels awkward," said Shea, an Army spouse whose family is now in the throes of figuring out what's next for them.

Shea has been working in a sales job for the last four years, and while she never considered it to be the start of a career, it might be the only income her family sees when the military paycheck ends. Realizing that has caused her to stop and think: What role does her job have in their future?

"What if my income is the only one we have?" she asks. "I like that he's looking for work places that are really hiring. I'm not sure that us moving to someplace he thinks he can get a job is a good idea when it means giving up the one income we know we have."

Shea isn't in an easy position, but neither is her husband. For them -- and you -- there is no blanket right answer. Sorting out those answers are things they can only do together to know what's right for their family. Keep the conversation lines open so you can do the same thing.

Step Three: Look Where the Jobs Are

Despite all the upheaval, Shea's family can rest assured of one thing: At the very least, they're approaching geography the right way.

All too often, veterans look at the end of service as a call to stay at their base and try to find a job in the civilian sector there or just return home.

While going home can be a wonderful thing, it is not always the most secure approach to civilian life. If it's an employment hotspot, high tail it back home. But if jobs there are scarce already and options limited, consider a new adventure for your family: Someplace you haven't called home where employees are actually in demand. (They really do exist!)

How can you determine where a good place for your family to go might be? Spend some time with the military skills translator and help your spouse make sense of what his civilian skill-sets are. Then investigate regions where those skill-sets are in demand.

If you are career-minded, make sure his career prospects are not the only ones you are taking into account. Look into areas where your skills are in demand and regions with the highest rates of employment as you think through your next move. The last thing you need to do is move from one military job desert to its civilian counterpart.

"I joke that we're going to end up in North Dakota with all those men you hear about on the news working hard labor, but some days, it isn't a joke," said Stephanie. "There really are jobs there!"

While you don't have to move to North Dakota to find work, Stephanie makes a great point: The bravest thing you can do in the midst of a scary transition is go where the jobs are.

Step Four: Join In On The Job Search -- For Money and Morale

We have said it before and we will say it again: Yours might be the only income coming in.

"That sounds so scary," said Ashley, a new Marine Corps wife who is just learning about transition from her friends. "It seems like everyone's husband is getting out, and mine is up for the next board. I just moved here and I'm already nervous."

Ashley, newbie that she is, is trying to make a home for herself at Twentynine Palms and find a way to build her own career. Just in case.

"I've started looking for work in cities we always talked about living one day -- just as like a dream job thing? But he plays along now."

What Ashley did, without even realizing it, was give her partner the opportunity to dream about a new, better-than-this life.

"He said it's really nice to know I'm willing to do some of the hard work for our family too," she said. "I want to be a mom really, but if this is what he needs from me next, I can do this, too. I want to support him."

A great way to support your service member through transition is to do just like Ashley and start your own job search. Show you are willing to roll your sleeves up and take charge of an admittedly bad situation.

Stephanie agrees. "It's like I got the pink slip too," she said. "I'd been enjoying life at home with the kids, but now I am a stay-at-home mom looking for work. I have to feed my children. And if he doesn't get a job, I have no excuse for not having looked for one either!"

Holding down the homefront is what you, military spouse, are great at. Be open-minded about what that means. For your husband, it might be a relief to know that you are willing to put your comfort level and 9-to-5 plans on the line, too. Transition is hard, and finding work is even harder. If you do it together, you will halve the burden and double the resources.

Step Five: Plan for the Worst

This is where we at the Spouse team have to admit to something we are just now realizing: When we talk about transition, we have a great knack for finding families that have landed on their feet. We love these families. They are wonderful examples for the rest of us, and we want to share their success stories. We can learn from them! We want to know everything they did, what worked, what advice they have for the rest of us.

But in reality, there are a lot of military families who aren't as lucky, and their stories need to be told, too.

Consider Marine Corps spouse Melody. She and her husband of four years were going through a deployment for the bulk of the year before he was cut. He was in Afghanistan, which made it hard to job hunt, so he didn't. That, and he was convinced he was going to be safe.

"He was sure it wasn't going to happen to him," she said. "And I believed him! He knows his job and his strengths. It's my job as his wife to trust him. He knew he was going to be safe so he didn't bother to look for another job."

What Melody and her husband didn't take into account, though, was the Big Green Machine and the fact that with any large bureaucracy, decisions are going to be made that aren't always fair or just. Worse yet, sometimes those decisions are handed down when you're newly back from deployment and have had very little time to prepare for your new reality.

This is why as soon as transition is even a distant possibility on the horizon, we encourage you to get cracking. Melody agrees.

"We're living at home with his parents," she reports. "He didn't find a job in time and now we have no income and three kids who eat everything in sight. They can't afford for us to be here forever, and I don't know what we're going to do."

Melody's husband is interviewing with a local hardware store, and they hope he will get the job. "He's overqualified for it, but that doesn't matter. It's something."

With a little income coming in, they hope to build enough of a kitty to pay back his parents and move out. "But even then," she said, "that's far out in the future. Right now, it's just about today."

So wherever you are in transition, let their story be a warning to you: Do not let today slip by. Today, you can make a difference in how your family survives transition. Today, you can start to think about tomorrow.

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