By Lynn Brezosky San Antonio Express-News
Smartly dressed and equipped with a resume detailing past jobs in management and human resources, Denise Craigen approached recruiters at a recent military job fair, hoping she'd have an edge beyond her work experience.
She spent the past 20-plus years moving around the country because of her husband's Air Force career, and she says that made her easy to work with and a quick study.
"When we moved, I had to start all over again, every time," Craigen said. "I think there's some maturity and life experience that you gather."
Still, she wasn't surprised to hear the gloomy results of a report on military spouses' job prospects.
The Military Officers Association of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University recently released a study that found 90 percent of responding female spouses were overqualified for their jobs.
Many other military wives can't find work. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, one of the data sources for the report, they are three times more likely to be unemployed than their civilian counterparts.
In 2012, 18-to-24-year-old female spouses had an unemployment rate of 30 percent, compared with 11 percent for other women in that age group. The rate for ages 25-44 was 15 percent, compared with civilians' 6 percent.
The outlook brightens for spouses 45 and up, which MOAA Director of Government Relations Karen Golden attributed to husbands retiring and being able to stay put. But the unemployment rate for the age group still was 5.9 percent, compared with 3.9 percent for civilians.
"The underemployment of spouses is just ridiculous," said retired Maj. James Cunningham, an organizer of the local military job fair and president of MOAA's Alamo chapter. "You're talking about women who've had master's and doctorate degrees, and all they can find is entry-level work."
He said employers may wonder whether the candidate will be moved or transferred, though that shouldn't be an issue for the large number whose spouses are leaving the military.
The Army currently numbers about 522,000 soldiers. It's expected to drop to about 490,000, possibly 390,000. Cunningham said as many as 30,000 service members could leave the Air Force.
Reductions in other branches likewise will have former personnel streaming out into San Antonio.
"Most people think of San Antonio as strictly Army and Air Force, but it's not," Cunningham said. "We've got three major Navy commands out here at Fort Sam.... We've got detachments of Marine Corps that are on the medical side, and we've got a lot of Marines and a lot of other services up on Security Hill."
Patrick Driscoll, family-employment assistance counselor for the Texas Veterans Commission, said he's working with 221 unemployed military spouses in the San Antonio area, ranging from young women whose only experience is in part-time high school jobs to women with doctorate degrees.
Even as about one client a week lands a job, he may get three or four more.
He said it's estimated that over the next five years, the regional job market will see an influx of 50,000 to 80,000 transitioning service members -- many of them with transitioning spouses.
While her husband served and deployed to Afghanistan, Stephanie Patton volunteered with Army Family Team Building at Fort Drum in New York, working as a mediator with Army Family Action Planning.
She also was a company leader with the Family Readiness Group, assisting about 50 soldiers and their families. She signed on with a temp agency as well.
"Since retirement, the children are gone and I'm back out in the workforce," she said. "We find a lot of difficulty with the job market not being as strong as it was before the war, and then the lapse in employment."
Her work and life skills didn't seem to be translating, she said.
"They don't see temporary employment as valuable, so there's challenges," she said. "You want to say you're diverse, you're able to adapt to change, able to overcome difficulties. Really, none of that stuff is really interesting on the resume."
She got tips during a recent seminar offered by Centurion Military Alliance, which was founded by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans struggling to adapt to civilian life.
The group specializes in helping troops transition, which includes "demilitarizing" resumes and teaching how to translate military achievements into a "language that the civilian community can understand."
The same advice applies to spouses, CMA founder Jarod Myers said.
"Who are they surrounded by? Their military lifeline," he said. "The spouses have to learn how to communicate what they've been doing for the last five, 10, or 15 years while they've been at home. Or they've held odd jobs while traveling and supporting their spouse. Nothing wrong with that.
"We just teach them how to really talk about and accentuate the good skills and experiences that they come with, because they're very, very valuable."
That applies to military husbands, too, said Chris Pape, an intermittently employed video producer who founded MachoSpouse.com, a lively website with videotaped talks, "Man to Man" advice, links to discounts, a male military spouse locator and other content. He met his wife, currently an Air Force major, in Fort Collins, Colo. From there, they moved to Colorado Springs -- for him a better market.
"I just kind of assumed, oh boy, her next move maybe we'll move to Washington, D.C., and that will be an even bigger market," he said.
It didn't work out that way. The couple went from Colorado Springs to Little Rock, Ark., and then to Columbia, S.C.
He found something that didn't match his goals in Little Rock and was out of work the entire two years in Columbia, which prompted him to start reaching out to other male military spouses.
Two months into the move to San Antonio, he found his best opportunity in six years, working as the multimedia producer for the American Payroll Association.
He said the response to MachoSpouse.com has been overwhelming.
"It was kind of like when I would call people and explain what I was doing," Pape said, "a light bulb went on above their head and they said, 'Oh, God, yeah -- there's men.'"