Fast Facts

As of 2018, there were more than 605,000 spouses of U.S. military active duty service members. Frequent moves and difficulty transferring occupational licenses are some of the challenges that these spouses may face when pursuing careers.

The Department of Defense offers various resources, like virtual career coaching, to help military spouses find jobs. But inconsistent information-sharing across DOD limits the effectiveness of outreach about these resources. In addition, DOD doesn't plan to continue assessing and reporting on states' efforts to help military spouses transfer occupational licenses. Our recommendations address these issues.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

According to estimates from Department of Defense (DOD) survey data, roughly one-quarter of military spouses who were in the workforce and in career fields that required credentials (state licenses or certifications) were unemployed in 2017. In that same year, about one-quarter of spouses who were employed in credentialed career fields were working outside their area of expertise, and about one in seven were working part-time due to a lack of full-time opportunities—two potential indicators of underemployment. Employment outcomes for military spouses may also vary due to other factors, including their partner's rank and frequent moves, according to DOD survey data and GAO's literature review.

In February 2020, the Defense State Liaison Office, which works on key issues affecting military families, assessed states' use of best practices that help military spouses transfer occupational licenses. For example, the Liaison Office found that 34 states could increase their use of interstate compacts, which allow spouses in certain career fields, such as nursing, to work in multiple states without relicensing (see figure). However, the Liaison Office does not plan to continue these assessments, or assess whether states' efforts are improving spouses' experiences with transferring licenses. As a result, DOD may not have up-to-date information on states' actions that help spouses transfer their licenses and maintain employment.

Assessment by the Defense State Liaison Office of Number of States Using Interstate Compacts to Improve Military Spouse Employment

Assessment by the Defense State Liaison Office of Number of States Using Interstate Compacts to Improve Military Spouse Employment

DOD and the military services use a range of virtual and in-person outreach to promote awareness of employment resources among military spouses. For example, officials GAO interviewed at installations said they promoted resources through social media and at orientation briefings. Nonetheless, GAO found that inconsistent information sharing across DOD and with external stakeholders who help spouses with employment hindered the effectiveness of outreach. For instance, officials from two services said they do not have methods to regularly exchange outreach best practices or challenges, while officials from another service said they have quarterly staff calls to share lessons learned. Without strategies for sharing information among internal and external stakeholders, DOD may miss opportunities to increase spouses' awareness of available resources, and improve their employment opportunities.

Why GAO Did This Study

There were over 605,000 spouses of active duty servicemembers in the U.S. military as of 2018. These spouses may face conditions associated with the military lifestyle that make it challenging to start or maintain a career, including frequent moves and difficulties transferring occupational licenses.

House Armed Services Committee Report 116-120 accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 included a provision for GAO to review several matters related to military spouse employment. This report examines (1) selected employment outcomes for military spouses, (2) DOD's efforts to evaluate states' licensing policies for spouses, and (3) DOD's outreach efforts to promote awareness of employment resources. GAO reviewed DOD documentation and 2017 survey data (most recent available), relevant literature, and federal laws; interviewed DOD and military services officials and relevant stakeholders; and spoke with staff at six military installations selected based on the numbers of servicemembers, among other factors.

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Recommendations

GAO is making two recommendations to DOD to continue assessing and reporting on states' efforts to help military spouses transfer occupational licenses, and to establish information sharing strategies on outreach to military spouses about employment resources. DOD concurred with both recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense 1. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy work with the Defense State Liaison Office to ensure continued assessment and reporting on each state's progress towards implementing best practices for facilitating licensure portability for military spouses, and explore options for assessing whether states' actions are improving spouses' experiences with transferring licenses. (Recommendation 1)
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DOD agreed with this recommendation. The agency highlighted several strategies it uses to support states progress towards implementing best practices for facilitating licensure portability for military spouses. Specifically, DOD stated that it relays best practices to policymakers, publicizes licensure improvement successes, and coordinates with the military services regarding standardized assessment and reporting processes. We believe it is also important that DOD continue to provide states with periodic formal assessments that document the areas in which states can improve licensure portability for spouses, and explore options for examining whether states' actions are improving spouses' experiences transferring licenses. Taking these steps would help DOD identify additional actions states could consider to help military spouses transfer their licenses and improve their employment opportunities.
Department of Defense 2. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy, in coordination with the Secretaries of the military services and external stakeholders, establish strategies for sharing information on their outreach approaches to raise awareness of employment resources among military spouses. (Recommendation 2)
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DOD agreed with this recommendation. The agency noted that it holds bi-monthly meetings with spouse employment personnel at military services headquarters, and that it has implemented a quarterly meeting with the services to share information on outreach approaches and raise awareness of employment resources for military spouses. To implement this recommendation, we believe it is also important that they ensure that its efforts include external stakeholders.

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