Making Military Moves Work for You

We often run into fantastic advice from the field regarding military spouse careers. Below we share Megan Reilly's advice on making your career work no matter where the military sends you. Megan is currently an Executive Administrative Assistant, Directorate for Oversight and Compliance Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer, Office of the Secretary of Defense.

"As a military spouse I struggled to find my way at the first station overseas. I had literally moved from the free-thinking, wild world of Berkeley, California, to life on a military base, during war time, in Germany. The environments were a pretty extreme contrast. I did not have any background in the military world. I didn't know any acronyms. I had a lot to learn. However, my goal was to be of service to the local military community. My spouse at the time worked crazy hours, so, he wasn't able to assist very much with my acclimation to the military community and culture. In addition, as a college-educated spouse of an enlisted military member with no children, I really was not sure where I would fit in. After some stumbling around, I realized that I had to "own" who I was and share whatever time and talent I had to offer to the military community at large. In fact, as time went on, I realized that it was my duty to do that ─ it was my duty to bring all I had to the table to keep the military families around me strong. As the saying goes: "It takes a village to raise a child."

I would encourage spouses to think about five things they are best at ─ and then encourage them to find out where they can make those talents shine, whether it is on base or within the local community. If you have the ability to help in a certain area, chances are there will be an individual or a business operation on base (or within the local community) that needs your talent. (For example, if you're an artist, share your art and teach others. Some bases have art studios with low-cost or free classes. If you love serving others, find a place to serve (number of areas here). If you have computer skills, share them and teach others (volunteer to teach classes, help others write their resume, volunteer at the USO and teach troops how to use PowerPoint, etc.). If you are a nutritionist, share your knowledge and help keep our families healthy. Trust me, there is a place for everyone.

After a spouse identifies what they have to offer, I would encourage him or her to start building their own personal "military family" and network. I recommend getting involved in anything (and everything) on base. I would start with other spouses of active-duty members who work with your spouse. Usually, other more seasoned spouses can provide initial direction and insight in terms of what has resulted in employment for other spouses at your new duty station. For example, in Germany, I found personal networking to be the greatest benefit. Whereas, in Alaska, I found that using an off-base staffing company yielded the best employment results for me.

In addition, I found all of the following things very helpful: reading the local base newspapers, participating in spouse groups, volunteering (at the chapel, USO or ASYMCA), interviewing with local temp agencies in the community, networking during USO cooking classes or tours, signing up for any kind of class on base, participating in MWR activities, getting a NAF position, and taking classes on base about government resume writing for GS positions. After you network enough, more and more doors open.

I would also encourage spouses not to discount what they have to offer. In addition, embrace how blessed you are to live in different environments and, accordingly, adopt a learning mindset. Lastly, realize that the job you had at one station might not exist at the next station, so be accepting of change and always rely on the skillset that you bring to the table.

As I mentioned, it was tough initially for me to find a job overseas in Germany. However, I came across an advertisement in the base newspaper for an off-base, American-run preschool looking to hire a pre-K teacher. A few weeks went by and the school was still advertising. I started weighing what my chances would be of actually getting the job. On one hand, I knew I would be able to convey my love for teaching and love for children. I knew I could also share that I took a child development course in college and got an “A” in the course. However, on the other hand, I also knew that I only had teaching experience with college- and high school-aged students, which was quite a difference from four and five-year-olds! In addition, I had no children of my own and knew that if you lined up preschool children against a wall, I would not have been able to even remotely guess their ages with any level of accuracy. However, the next thing I knew, I got that job and I was standing in front of a pre-K classroom feeling like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop. Naturally, I acted on my desire to adopt a learning mindset and I brought myself up to speed on student milestones for that age, and I am happy to say that by the end of the school year most of our students were reading basic books, a great accomplishment for four- and five-year-olds.

When the school year was over, another teacher at the school encouraged me to apply to work at the USO, and I got a job there. The USO ended up being where I worked for most of my time at that station. In fact, I worked my way up to managing that center, which was the busiest USO in the world at the time. It was the first business I ran, and years later, because of the business experience I gained at the USO and in other subsequent jobs, I ended up opening an entrepreneur support center in Charleston, South Carolina. The work that I did at the USO changed my life. So, as I mentioned, the more you network, the more doors open.

For the next overseas duty station, I was able to line up a job by searching online. I got a job at a tour company in Alaska before ever setting a foot in the state. (The USO also offered tours, so I highlighted that in the tour company interview). If I recall correctly, I think I started that job the day after I arrived in Alaska. I look at the job as a great transition job. It would help me learn more about where things were located in the local area and state, and if I liked it, great; if not, I would just find another job. As it turned out, I did not stay at that job for very long and a coworker, who was born and raised in Alaska, shared with me that it was very common for people in Alaska to use staffing companies. In fact, I remember her exact words: "Everyone uses staffing companies in Alaska." (Staffing companies weren't as popular in other areas I had lived.)

So, I scheduled an interview at the staffing company that she recommended. It just so happened that the woman who was interviewing me at the staffing company was a military spouse. I explained to her that I had worked my way up in the nonprofit world, and I wanted to make money for a change, so I was thinking oil. She replied, "Oil?" I said, "Yes, that's right, oil. When in Rome...or when in Alaska, in this case." I figured I had nothing to lose when speaking to her, and two days later I had a job in an oil company and I stayed there for almost four years. I knew NOTHING about oil, other than needing to take the car to Jiffy Lube, prior to that position. However, when you demonstrate an ability to learn, and you bring with you a skill set, such as strong computer skills, you might surprise yourself regarding what doors will open for you.

That raises another point: at some point as a spouse, you will start to realize that you are kind of becoming a "citizen of the world." Identifying with where you were born and raised might not be as relevant to you as you learn and grow and move from place to place. You will quickly be able to assess the economic opportunities that exist in any city. You'll gain access to industries you never dreamed of; you'll meet people and do things that will humble you and surprise you; and then you'll move again and do it all over.

When I landed that job at the oil company, I realized that my character, my willingness to learn, and my skill set would allow me to open any door I wanted to be opened. So in short, always make sure you invest in advancing your skill set. Take computer classes. Get certifications. Take whatever classes you need. There are a number of classes on or off base that can help in that regard. Every class will open your eyes to new experiences. It is a blessing to study German in Germany, for example, and who knows, you might find that you want to continue using the unique opportunities afforded to you throughout your lifetime.

I want to highlight a few career experiences that I NEVER would have dreamed of having, that were only afforded to me because I was a military spouse:

  • Working for Jane Goodall, UN Messenger of Peace and frequent National Geographic cover story, in Switzerland
  • Touring small and large-scale mine sites in Alaska to relay information to the local and state legislature
  • Bringing actor Wilmer Valderama around on base to surprise troops who were going down range and those who were on the way to return to their families after a long deployment
  • Editing and writing $20-million contracts submitted to large oil companies in Alaska
  • Working at the Pentagon
  • Being coined by former Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne
  • Opening an entrepreneur support center, coaching 1,500 entrepreneurs, and running a local investor pitch event similar to the “Shark Tank” television show
  • Serving those who defended American freedom (our military) and serving those who were exercising that same freedom (entrepreneurs in pursuit of the American dream)
  • Serving military members at the busiest USO center in the world, who thanked me all day long for my service when I knew they were sacrificing much more than me

In closing, know that you are very valuable to your military family, and you are capable of doing anything you want career-wise. In addition, by gaining insight into multiple work environments, learning the language of different work cultures, learning about the economics of different places around the world, and more, you will be a huge asset to any company once you are able to plant your roots for a longer period of time."

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