A program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
Hiring Our Heroes launched the nation’s first Military Spouse Economic Empowerment Zone a year ago with a vision – connect military spouses with companies committed to hiring them.
That vision is no longer a dream or a hope. That vision is now a reality for thousands of military spouses facing unemployment and underemployment in cities and towns across the country.
“Several of our military spouses, including myself, have secured gainful employment as a direct result of the vibrant network and guidance here,” said Holland Nguyen, a military spouse who lives in San Antonio, Texas, and works at Humana Military. Nguyen shared her employment success story at the one-year anniversary reception hosted by USAA and attended by Second Lady of the United States Karen Pence in San Antonio earlier this week.
The Military Spouse Economic Empowerment Zones launched in San Antonio in February 2018. Twelve zones are now up and running which means that military spouses in Spokane, Tampa, Colorado Springs, and San Diego are more likely to be connected with opportunities, thanks to the willingness of employment partners, service organizations, chamber of commerce, state, and city officials to solve a national workplace issue.
Additional zones will be launched this year.
“Military spouse employment is a very important aspect of a strong and resilient military,” Pence said. “We know that if the spouses aren’t happy the service members are going to get out of the service. We see it. It just makes sense. I’ve given you eight years; you’ve gotten to do what you love, now it’s my turn. It’s unfortunate that it has to be one way or the other.”
The beauty of the Military Spouse Economic Empowerment Zones is that each zone’s working group focuses on local solutions for its military spouses, explained Natalie Ryan, senior manager with Hiring Our Heroes and MSEEZ Program Director. You can learn more about MSEEZ by listening Ryan’s interview on episode 128 of the Hiring Our Heroes Sitrep podcast.
“Every zone is coming up with its own solutions. They come up with a solution that fits their area,” Ryan said.
The working groups comprised of committed employers and city leaders do more than host brainstorming sessions and committee meetings. The working group members identify solutions to create a “pipeline of talent” that connects military spouses to employment opportunities, Ryan said.
“It needs to be more than chatter. We need to be able to make an impact,” Ryan said. In order to establish a Military Spouse Economic Employment Zone, a region also needs a vibrant and active Military Spouse Professional Network.
Patie Powers, MSEEZ Tampa lead, said the zone’s working group are built on Hiring Our Heroes’ network of national and local employers. She noted that military spouses are getting hired in Tampa such like they are in San Antonio.
“It’s all about the network – that’s the foundation of our entire organization,” Powers said. “In order to get a job, you have to have a network and you have to know somebody. Well, here’s how we get you to know somebody.”
In the past year, the Tampa MSEEZ partnered with three national employers – Amazon, Capital One, and Spectrum – on quarterly company-led lunch and learns. In order to host a lunch and learn, the employer must have immediate job openings, a degree of flexible or work from home positions, opportunities to transfer to a new position during a military relocation, and a willingness to hire military spouses. The recruiters are required to attend the lunch and learns and review military spouses’ resumes at the event.
The success of MSEEZ is as simple as bringing military spouses looking for employment into the same room with corporate recruiters, Powers said.
“We went with the ‘lunch and learns’ because we wanted to give people the opportunity to meet these people face to face and talk about hiring requirements. It’s way to guide them through the process and it makes the hiring process personal,” Powers said. “And if the MSEEZ can bring people to those personal introductions, that’s a huge win.”
Army spouse Liz Larsen admitted that she was a bit skeptical of the MSEEZ concept.
“I thought here we go again, something else that we are going to say ‘this is going to help military spouses,’ but are they going to do anything with it?” Larsen said.
A year later, Larsen is the San Antonio MSEEZ chairperson and the initiative’s most vocal proponent.
“I believe in this 100% and I want to do whatever I can to make it a success in San Antonio,” Larsen said. “I think the employers along with everybody else wants to see military spouse employment improve.”
It made perfect sense to launch the nation’s first MSEEZ in San Antonio; a community who enjoys the Military City USA claim to fame. As the largest joint base in the Department of Defense, Joint Base San Antonio has enjoyed a long and vibrant history of service members living and retiring there. Now the seventh largest city in the United States, ahead of Dallas and Austin – San Antonio’s job growth was 2.3% in 2017 and the median household income is $57,654, according to Forbes magazine.
It also made perfect sense for USAA to be an active employment partner in the San Antonio MSEEZ, said USAA’s Director in Corporate Responsibility Selene Martin.
“Fulfilling careers for veterans and military spouses is a key USAA Corporate Responsibility national focus area and a way we advocate for issues impacting military members and their families,” Martin said. “The Hiring Our Hero’s MSEEZ are a flagship initiative that aligns with the collective vision of equipping and empowering employers across the nation to recognize the value of the military spouse talent pool and make a commitment to bring them into their organizations.”
USAA’s Assistant Vice President of Military Advocacy Mike Kelly said there have been many successes in the first year of the San Antonio MSEEZ.
“Most importantly, we’ve watched the foundation come together. Key partners across the city have joined forces to build a robust network of national and local employers, educational institutions, and community resources,” Kelly said.
During the event, San Antonio’s Director of Military and Veterans Affairs Juan Ayala announced that the city is in the final stages of signing an agreement with Hiring Our Heroes to support military spouse fellowship opportunities through HOH’s Corporate Fellowship Program in San Antonio.
“We are currently working with Hiring Our Heroes on an agreement that will provide meaningful opportunities for these spouses. Hiring Our Heroes’ Corporate Fellowship Program is one of them. Our plan is to connect spouses with the corporations and the municipalities in our region,” Ayala said. “As you can see, we support our military with concrete actions and tangible results.”
Nguyen, like many military spouses, hasn’t had a linear career path. Through multiple military relocations, Nguyen pivoted her skills into various job opportunities in order to maintain a professional career. In Naples, Italy, she worked as a contractor for WWC and continued to work for WWC when she moved to Washington, D.C. Later, she worked for Booz Allen Hamilton in South Korea.
When Nguyen’s spouse received orders to San Antonio, she felt relief. Surely, if she could find employment at two different continents halfway around the world, landing a job in Texas would be a breeze. After six months of job searching, Nguyen was shocked that she couldn’t find a job that married her health care knowledge with her government contracting experience.
“I found it extremely difficult to find a position where I could contribute all my professional, but inconsistent skills in a really meaningful way,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen’s answer to her employment challenges was volunteering to help with Hiring Our Heroes initiatives. She launched a Military Spouse Professional Network in San Antonio two years ago and built a supportive network of community advocates rallying around military spouse employment through the Military Spouse Economic Empowerment Zone.
Nguyen attributed these connections and partnerships to finding her current employer, Humana Military.
Pence said she found Nguyen’s story encouraging and shows that the San Antonio MSEEZ’s model can work to reduce military spouse unemployment rates through increased opportunities.
“Holland has a job that she loves in her field. These are real results and that’s what’s so exciting about this,” Pence said.
When Army veteran and military spouse Cliff Clevenger moved to San Antonio in July 2018, he wasn’t sure exactly what type of job he wanted.
“My career has been all over the place. I’ve done project management for security. I’ve done medical front office assistant, financial account management, and most recently nonprofit operations with the USO,” Clevenger said.
Clevenger’s first stop was the USO San Antonio. He enjoyed his job with the USO in Hawaii and was hoping to find employment with them again. They didn’t have any open positions, but an USO official recommended that he connect with members of the Military Spouse Professional Network. This Hiring Our Heroes networking group, launched by Nguyen two years ago, is thriving with 1,400 online members. So, Clevenger attended one event to make some connections and ended up immersing himself into the community.
Today, Clevenger credits the network for helping him find his current job as a career guidance specialist with Goodwill.
“It was absolutely crucial. The people that I met through my network were the ones who came to me and asked me to apply for the position. … [They said] ‘It was a position that’s available and we think you would be perfect for it,’” Clevenger said.
Pence commented that employment is the number one issue that she hears about from military spouses.
“Military families, like many other families, in the United States would like to have an extra income, but you know what? It’s not all about the income, although that definitely helps. It’s also about fulfillment and satisfaction,” Pence said.
“It is absolutely true. It’s not hard to find a job, it’s difficult to find the right job. The right job is the one where you are fulfilled, where you are doing something meaningful,” Clevenger said.
Clevenger pointed out that it took him six months to land his current job. It took Nguyen more than a year to find her position. Both recommended that military spouses take advantage of the networking opportunities available through the MSEEZ and MSPN.
“That’s one thing that I had to learn this time – don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Whether it be meeting new people or reaching out to jobs that you normally wouldn’t reach out to,” Clevenger said “Use your networks like MSPN, USO and Goodwill because they are out there for you.”
Nguyen encouraged military spouses to expand their professional network by attending job fairs and networking events.
“This Military Spouse Economic Empowerment Zone may just lead to your next career opportunity,” she said.
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A Program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation