Monday, April 16, 2012

Help is on the Way?

If you're a military spouse (and looking for work), don't worry--help is on the way, according to First Lady Michelle Obama.

Mrs. Obama, who has become an advocate for military families during her time in the White House, recently announced a partnership with eleven firms that will create "up to 15,000 jobs" in the coming years. Details from UPI:

When the next set of orders comes in for these families, and they have to move across the country, they'll be able to move these jobs with them," Obama said in a conference call with reporters.

The jobs at companies around the United States aim to help military spouses find work near bases where their partners are stationed. Most of the jobs, which are in telecommuting or customer support, will offer flexible hours so parents can work from home and be available for personal commitments.

Twenty-six percent of military spouses are unemployed, U.S. Department of Defense statistics indicate. Moving from state to state is a challenge for professionals who have to register licenses in different states or who cannot find work in their field when they relocate.

With her announcement, Obama stressed that flexibility and portability are the future of jobs for families that are juggling so much. Veteran and military family job seekers are often not willing or able to move for a job, a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said.

That's why other government groups are working to connect veterans with employers near where they live.

Readers will note that the companies which will create the jobs were not named, and there is no timeline for when the positions will be added. Additionally, the vague description offered in the UPI account suggests that most of the jobs will be call center or customer service positions, which won't catapult military spouses into the upper 1% of wage earners. But for some military families, these jobs could help ease their financial strain.

Still, we're wondering if Mrs. Obama and her partner Jill Biden (wife of the Vice President) aren't aiming a bit low. As veterans of the career and education expo circuit, we routinely speak with scores of military members and their spouses. The education level of military families is well above the national average, and it's quite easy to find spouses with graduate degrees. Individuals with that sort of background are qualified for more than just a call center-at-home position.

Here's an idea: perhaps the First Lady and Dr. Biden can talk the President's best friend in the corporate world (General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt) and see what his company can bring to the table. After all, GE doesn't pay any corporate income taxes, so they've got plenty of cash to expand their operations and hire additional staff--at least in theory.

Which leads us to another question: if the economic recovery is perking along (as the White House would have us believe), why were Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden unable to "create" more than 15,000 entry-level jobs over an unspecified timeline? Corporations can't be forced to hire anyone (not yet, anyway) and with continuing economic uncertainty, firms are reluctant to add new workers. And the chief reason for the economic apprehension can be found in the Oval Office.

And, at the risk of tossing another fly in the ointment, here's another grim reminder that somehow didn't make the UPI dispatch. While Michelle Obama and Jill Biden are trying to create more jobs for military spouses, the Commander-in-Chief (along with Defense Secretary Panetta) are sending more troops to the unemployment line. As many as 100,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will be forced out of service over the next three to four years, due to Pentagon budget cutbacks. It doesn't take an economist to calculate the impact of those force cutbacks on military families.

Put another way, the First Lady's initiative will help a military spouse land a job as a home call center or customer service rep that pays $8-15 an hour, with few benefits and little stability. Meanwhile, their husband or wife will be forced from active duty as an E-5 or E-6, with no pension and only short-term health care benefits. These jobs are hardly a substitute for the military positions being eliminated, and with the ripple effect in the defense industry, fewer veterans will find employment that utilizes the skills and experience they gained in uniform.

Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Biden deserve some credit for helping military families at a time when spouses and veterans face long odds in finding a job. But until they address the larger factors influencing unemployment in the military community, those 15,000 "jobs" are little more than a drop in the bucket.
ADDENDUM: And while we're handing out darts, here's one for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is sponsoring "Hire our Heroes" job fairs around the country. For whatever reason, the Chamber has decided to exclude educational institutions from these events.

From our perspective, that is a serious mistake. Go to any military job fair, and you'll see vets rejected by potential employers due to their lack of a college degree. Learning that they're only a sheepskin away from a $100,000 job, most military members or veterans start scrambling to find education options. The Chamber could certainly establish criteria for schools that would be allowed to participate, and limit their numbers at individual events. Someone needs to tell the Chamber of Commerce that many of the heroes attending their job fairs need educational resources, too (in the interest of full disclosure, your humble correspondent is an executive for a private, non-profit university).

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