WASHINGTON - The Defense Department is making "tremendous" strides in its efforts to ease employment challenges for military spouses with occupational licenses, a DOD official said here Feb. 23.
"This year we're having tremendous success, and expect to see even more progress next year," Ed Kringer, director of state liaison and educational opportunity for the Pentagon's office of military community and family policy, told an audience gathered for the National Credentialing Summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Speaking on a panel, Kringer described the department's efforts to break down barriers for spouses challenged by states' varying licensure requirements.
Kringer said his office's role is to engage in state-level discussions on issues affecting service members and their families. Each year, he said, officials select the top 10 state-level issues to focus on, and then work to educate state policy makers and other officials on these challenges in the hopes of prompting change.
One of the DOD's top issues for 2012 is easing military spouse transitions through license portability, Kringer said. A lack of portability - the ability to transfer an existing license to a new state with minimal application requirements - can cause spouses to bear high administrative and financial burdens as they attempt to obtain a license.
A new spouse employment report, produced by the Defense and Treasury departments, underscores the breadth of this issue. Unveiled last week by First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and senior defense officials at the Pentagon, the report spotlights spouses' employment challenges and offers a roadmap states can use to streamline or expedite licensing procedures.
More than 100,000 military spouses - or 35 percent of military spouses in the workforce - are in nearly 50 occupations and professions that require a license or certification, the report said, citing teaching, nursing and child care as the most common.
Yet, military families frequently move across state lines, confronting a new set of licensure requirements each time. The report indicates that military spouses are 10 times more likely to have moved across state lines in the past year than their counterparts in civilian life.
During an earlier panel, Laura Dempsey, director of military spouse employment programs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a military spouse, cited her challenges with maintaining her career as an attorney. She's already taken four different state bar exams over the course of her husband's career, she said.
Dempsey also recalled a nurse, a military spouse, who moved to a new state and then got stuck on the midnight shift because she didn't have union seniority. Her choice was to work midnights and not see her family or stop working. She opted for the latter, she said.
"Professional licensure relief is the holy grail of military spouse employment," Dempsey said.
Fellow panelist Vivian Greentree, research and policy director for Blue Star Families and a Navy wife, noted spouses rarely get past the fifth or sixth move without opting to forgo the time-consuming licensure process. Spouses are "jumping through hoops" to keep their careers on track, but shouldn't have to do so, she said.
"It's enough to ask - with households, careers, school and deployments - to stay sane at the end of the day," she said.
Kringer cited some ways states can help to break down these employment barriers, including:
- Facilitating endorsement of a current license from another state as long as requirements are substantially equivalent;
- Providing a temporary or provisional license spouses can use to work while fulfilling state requirements; and
- Expediting application procedures.
The endorsement issue heavily affects military spouses, Kringer said.
Nearly all states have an endorsement process, he said, but most require some level of competency, such as having actively practiced for four out of the last six years. This is a reasonable requirement for most people, he said, but not for spouses who may have lived overseas for the past three years or were in a stateside location without opportunities in their field.
Kringer said he'd like to see states look at other ways spouses can prove their competence, such as volunteer work or continuing education.
Temporary licenses are another way states can ease employment issues.
If states can issue a temporary license to spouses, they'll be able to work while fulfilling requirements needed to qualify for endorsement or while awaiting verification of documentation supporting an endorsement.
This measure is particularly helpful to military spouses as they're typically in one location for just two to three years, Kringer said. If it takes six months to obtain a license, that leaves spouses with a short window of time to find employment or work.
Streamlined approvals also will help to speed up the process, Kringer said. States could grant the state official overseeing licensing the authority to approve license applications for the boards, or the licensing boards could be given the authority to approve a license based on an applicant's affidavit that the information is correct.
Kringer cited examples of best practices outlined in the report that other states could potentially adopt or adapt to their needs.
Colorado, for example, passed a bill that enables applicants lacking in recent work experience to show their competency in other ways.
A Tennessee bill grants qualified applicants a temporary license to use while they work toward completing state requirements.
Kringer praised Montana state officials for passing a creative piece of legislation. In this bill, a spouse applies for an endorsement or a temporary license, and based on the application and an affidavit, officials either will grant the endorsement or a temporary license.
"[States] still get the information they need," he said. "And if something is wrong, they can always pull the license. This state went beyond what we were even asking for."
Kringer said he's been amazed at states' reception of spouse license legislation. "I'm very pleased with where we are and where we're going," he said.
Last week, the first lady noted that 11 states have adopted laws to aid spouse license portability, and 15 have legislation pending or waiting to be introduced.
Officials have set a national goal: by 2014, they want to see all 50 states pass legislation to address licensing issues. "But that still leaves 26 states - that still leaves more than half the country - that have yet to address this issue," she said.
Next week, the first lady and Biden will present this issue to all 50 state governors and their spouses at the National Governors Association Conference here. They'll also be rallying professional organizations and advocacy groups to engage on this issue at a state level.
By removing barriers to military spouse employment, leaders are looking out not only for military families' well-being, but also the nation's security, Kringer said. A military spouse's outlook is a key factor in a military member's decision to re-enlist.
"Military spouses want careers, and to the extent that that need isn't satisfied, they can become very unhappy being a military spouse," he said. "And if they're unhappy, their spouse will be unhappy being a military member."
DOD will continue to partner with the White House and other federal agencies to keep the spotlight on this important issue, Kringer said.