PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — In a military community like Bay County, we see them everyday; military spouses and children, who go to the same grocery stores, the same parks and the same schools.
What we may not see are the every-day struggles that come along with the military lifestyle.
PART ONE: JOB INSECURITY AND THE STRESS ON A MODERN-DAY MILITARY FAMILY
Mrs. Heather Piddington is a teacher at Tyndall Elementary School. When she’s not writing lesson plans or getting her classroom ready for a day of teaching, she’s with her own family, which she says started out a bit different.
“We don’t have what one would call a typical marriage,” said Piddington.
After saying ‘I do,’ she said ‘I’ll go;’ her husband is in the U.S. Air Force.
“We were married in Tampa and then three months later we moved to Japan,” she said. “We were there for four years.”
In Japan, she had two kids. Today, eight years and three moves later, they’re here in Panama City, stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base.
Heather said while every move is different, one thing never changes.
“It was more fear of, well now what?” she said.
Fear of the future; as she picked up everything and moved somewhere new.
Along with that comes finding a new house, good schools for the kids and of course, a job, which she said is ultimately temporary.
“It’s a fear that spouses have that maybe an employer will not want to employ me because they see gaps,” she said. “Or they think I’m not going to be a long-term employee.”
A job search is stressful enough for anyone, but for military spouses, it can be exceptionally difficult.
“Do they want to invest in something or someone who can’t stay for very long?” asked Cindy Yarnell, another local, active-duty military spouse.
“That is our life,” said Yarnell. “That’s all we know is to do something for a little bit and then move again.”
She said that constantly moving develops an exceptional skill for organizing, planning ahead and leadership; something potential employers often don’t get the chance to see.
“It’s frustrating sometimes when employers don’t take a second look just because of the military spouse name or brand that follow us,” said Tori Haudenschild, another local military spouse.
Haudenschild has moved with her active-duty Air Force husband four times, and that frustration is something she knows all too well.
“I felt like people looked at my short amount of times that I’ve put on a resume and they didn’t understand maybe why I wasn’t there for a longer amount of time,” she said.
Those gaps often lead to employers shuffling military-spouse resumes to the side and giving the job to someone else. According to CareerSource Gulf Coast, military spouse unemployment was at 24 percent in 2019, which was nearly seven times higher than the national unemployment rate.
The U.S. Department of Defense has recognized this as a national issue.
“A lot of people depend on those dual incomes as we move from place to place,” said Col. Brian Laidlaw, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall Air Force Base. “We are nomadic people, we tend to get up and we tend to move, and it makes it very challenging for both the military member and the spouse to maintain employment throughout the years.”
He said the problem is becoming bigger and bigger, and the stress is sometimes too much for military members and their families.
“I know the active-duty spouse members feel the strain that is put on their families,” said Yarnell.
A strain on families is putting a strain on service-members and the military as a whole.
According to CareerSource Gulf Coast, nearly half of all active-duty military members consider their spouse’s employment opportunities when deciding to stay or leave the military. The DOD is taking notice of this, making military spouses and families a priority starting in the communities they live in.
“They will look at communities’ ability to do that and their ability to take spouses as they evaluate communities for future missions,” said Col. Laidlaw.
PART TWO: HOW LOCAL LEADERS ARE WORKING TO HELP
In Bay County, local leaders are springing to action.
“We were in DC, we were talking with military leaders,” said Glen McDonald, Vice President of the Bay Defense Alliance, who went to Washington D.C. with the BDA President, Tom Neubauer. “They told us that two of their largest issues of retaining people in the service were getting spouses employed, and education in the communities they lived in.”
As they face those challenges, they have turned to military communities around the country to help.
“They asked us at that time to get started in our community to help them solve those issues in our communities,” said McDonald.
Col. Laidlaw says that challenge will be the national standard across all branches of the military.
“As part of a basing criteria for future mission beddowns, they will use as one of those criteria,” he said. “What is the environment for spousal employment? Things like reciprocity, things like transferability of certificates and qualifications.”
While the MQ-9 and F-35 programs are here to stay, all future missions across all military branches will be based on criteria like spousal employment and things supporting military families.
The idea is that less stress on military spouses and families leads to stronger families and a stronger military as a whole.
“It’s part of our duty, the nation expects us to be at a moment’s notice, be able to pick up and fly overseas to fight in our nation’s wars,” said Col. Laidlaw. “A lot of times that comes with very short notice, we have to be able to depend upon strong families back home in some cases to raise our children, absolutely to maintain our household. It’s very unpredictable and any sources of security and stability that we can inject into that process, in this case through the local community being able to do that for us, what that does is that frees the service-member up to deploy and do what their nation expects them to do with full confidence that back home their spouse and their community is going to take care of the household at home.”
McDonald said leadership here didn’t waste any time after hearing the DOD’s challenge for communities.
“People were looking for ‘what do you want us to do?’” he said. “We didn’t ask ‘what do you want us to do,’ we got home and we got to work.”
The’ve been working over the last eight months to come up with solutions, working together with county groups like CareerSource Gulf Coast.
“We formed a committee to focus on the hiring of military spouses and dependents,” said Brittany Rock, Director of Communications for CareerSource Gulf Coast. “We are largely a military community, so it’s for us, for the economy to thrive that we have our military-dependents thriving as well.”
Although CareerSource Gulf Coast has had a military-member and dependant assistance program for years, they’ve been working on new ideas in addition to that, like resume-training workshops for military-members and dependants as well as personal networking tools.
“We actually created a jump-drive, a lanyard USB jump-drive for our active-duty dependents whenever they’re coming into the area,” said Rock.
Something as small as a flash-drive with resources, resume templates and more can make a big difference, according to local military spouses.
“I think a lot of times people aren’t even sure how to write a resume properly, so that would be really helpful for spouses coming in to have that help,” said Heather Piddington, whose husband is active-duty Air Force stationed at Tyndall AFB.
Local leaders have also been coordinating with world-wide companies like Verizon to offer new opportunities for military spouses in the community.
“What we really needed was a fully-transportable job with any employer so that if a spouse got a job here and they got transferred anywhere else in the world, they could keep that job,” explained McDonald.
Panama City leaders worked with Verizon executives to do just that, bringing the company’s home-based agent program, which allows customer service representatives to work from home, to Bay County. Typically, that program is usually only available in larger cities.
Retired military spouse, Elizabeth Radke, said she used to have a work-from-home job such as the ones being offered by Verizon. She said it paired perfectly with a military lifestyle, as she was able to work and take care of her household while her husband was deployed.
“I was so happy in my job that they actually took my husband off of his blood-pressure medication for a while,” she said.
McDonald said ideas like those are just the beginning.
“We will come up with new things, this will not be the end,” he said. “We still have a lot to do and a lot of work to do and we’ll see if the things that we have done are going to work.”
He said his goal is for a nationwide change in perspective.
“My hope is to change the culture in America where they see these people as assets to their companies,” said McDonald. “There are attributes that military spouses have that aren’t easy to come by in the normal employment pool.”
He said by hiring military spouses, the community is supporting the troops in a big way by supporting their loved ones within the community, and Bay County is heading in the right direction.
“The best ideas start small,” he said.