THERE IS no contract to sign and no extra clause in the wedding vows but when you become an Army spouse or partner do you have to accept that your career will take a backseat?, writes Jill Misson.
Living with a soldier and moving around can leave your CV looking patchy and that can knock your confidence. No matter how much you value family life, it can be frustrating to feel you’re playing second fiddle without your own income or identity.
AFF’s Chief Executive Sara Baade said: “Many families are rightly proud of their soldier’s career choice but want to keep their own identity to help them cope with the sometimes overwhelming pressures of Army life.”
A second salary can be essential at a time when home ownership is being encouraged. However, 48 per cent of the families who responded to an AFF employment survey in 2016 said frequent postings made it more difficult to maintain employment.
So when you are between jobs, how can you keep yourself work-ready? Sarah Barker, an executive coach who has lived all over the world as an Army spouse, said: “Some employers still look unfavourably upon a discontinuous employment history and can be reluctant to employ someone they consider transient, but technology and a shifting job market means traditional attitudes are changing.”
Sarah has had to pass up promotions when posted and has self-funded professional development to remain employable. She has also taken advantage of free training courses and recommends the LifeWorks programme from RBLI.
“Spouses often get overlooked even though they have built up fantastic skills from juggling what can be a hectic lifestyle,” explained RBLI’s Iain Downie. “Our dedicated team of trainers and vocational assessors can help them to identify their own strengths which can be transferred to the workplace.”
Free drop-in sessions have been run by AFF and Manpower UK in Bulford. Chris Gray, the firm’s managing director, said: “From CV workshops to interview coaching and one-to-one career guidance, we can help spouses take the next step to feeling more confident in their skills.”
Claire Laidler was once told in a job interview that the company had a policy of not employing Army spouses. She now runs her own business working from home as a virtual assistant, a role that she first heard about from an article in Army&You.
She said: “I can still do the school run, but as well as being a wife and a mother, I am also a professional administrator with an income and a sense of self. I don’t have to worry about being posted and starting the job hunt again.”
There has been a definite shift in the attitude of employers in recent years according to Heledd Kendrick, CEO of Recruit for Spouses.
“We have seen a really positive change since we started in 2009,” she claimed. “The Armed Forces Covenant has played a part by raising awareness and forcing employers to be more accountable and to acknowledge our unique skillset but they do still need to be educated around how they can best support our lifestyle.”
Running your own business
Many Army spouses are now choosing to start their own businesses and, while that may sound daunting, there is support available.
Phil Keetley set up his own business in sea kayak coaching and, although serving wife Lisa has a long commute from their Scotland home, he says it’s a good balance: “I would encourage anyone living the Army lifestyle to consider a small business, particularly as working for yourself allows a degree of freedom so your partner can meet the Army’s commitments.”
Entrepreneurs can enrol on a free ten-month course from the University of Wolverhampton. Students on the Supporting the Unsung Hero Dependants’ Business Start-Up Programme learn how to turn an idea into a profitable company that is not restricted to one location.
Sarah Doherty knows how crucial it is for a business to be mobile. Since starting Birdhouse Beauty in 2012, she has had to close her salon and relocate four times due to postings – but now claims to have dreamt up the perfect solution.
“My husband and I have converted a vintage caravan into a salon on wheels,” she explained. “I will be instantly ready to welcome clients wherever we move.”
Social enterprise X-Forces also supports new businesses set up by Army families. Founder and CEO Ren Kapur said: “With our self-employment awareness workshops the aim is to encourage spouses to pursue their goals and enable them to explore a flexible and fulfilling career choice where the sky is the limit.”
Gemma Warr opened The Beauty Lounge in Bulford this year and X-Forces helped by reading her business plan and providing funding and a mentor. The journey to owning her own salon began when her husband was posted to Germany and Gemma had to leave a well-paid job.
She told us: “I had always done nails and beauty for friends and family in my spare time, so I did some research to find out if there was a need for a beautician on camp and took the plunge.
“If we hadn’t been posted I’d probably still be working for the local authority but what I do now is my true passion.”
Recognising your skills
The adaptability and resourcefulness of Army families are often valued highly by employers. Hannah Martin, co-founder of Talented Ladies Club, said it’s important not to overlook your soft skills and to believe in yourself. She added: “Many people have had success in turning a passion or craft into a business or spotting a gap in the market and creating a product to fit.”
Lorna Stannard turned her love of art into an enjoyable enterprise by taking commissions to draw portraits of people’s pets. “The Army community love dogs and horses,” she said. “The response from owners has been overwhelmingly positive, which makes this the most rewarding work I have ever done.”
Another way to keep yourself work-ready is by volunteering. Paula Searle became a volunteer adviser at Wiltshire Citizens Advice and less than a year later switched to a paid role.
She said: “It’s a flexible job allowing me to juggle my hours to accommodate boarding school pick-ups and holidays. The organisation is incredibly supportive of military families.”
AFF has been awarded LIBOR money to commission further research into the barriers to spousal employment. Chief Executive Sara Baade feels it’s time to ditch the word ‘dependant’.
“It’s an outdated, archaic term,” she said. “By supporting spouses in their search for meaningful employment we are injecting independence and helping to break down the old-fashioned view that spouses and partners are reliant on their soldier for financial and emotional security.”