Communities must not forget our military spouses

RECOGNISE: Australia's defence force spouses make many sacrifices in order to be with their partners. Picture: Shutterstock
RECOGNISE: Australia's defence force spouses make many sacrifices in order to be with their partners. Picture: Shutterstock

Fourteen per cent of Australian Defence Force partners are unemployed.

This is more than double - in fact, almost triple - the national unemployment average.

Further, 81 per cent of ADF partners say that they have made employment sacrifices because of their partner's ADF career, while 55 per cent indicated their own employment was the main reason to live separately from their spouse.

Defence Families Australia works tirelessly to support our Defence families, and its research into the experiences of spouses highlights an important need for broader communities to step up and extend that support.

DFA's research indicates there are a number of reasons why Defence partners face significant challenges in building their careers.

These challenges include an interrupted work history due to relocations, increased family responsibility due to partner deployments and commitments, childcare availability, a lack of interstate unity regarding licensing and registration requirements, and employer bias.

But these challenges are not insurmountable, with a little support from communities.

We thank our serving members of the ADF for their service, and rightly so.

But I think we often forget that this needs to extend to their partners and families for the sacrifices that they make as well.

There is no better way to thank an ADF partner than to employ them and encourage them to build an independent career.

Amanda McCue, a 2017 Churchill fellow, conducted research into military spouse employment and career development, exploring the experience with a view to improving assistance and outcomes in Australia, the US, Canada and UK.

Ms McCue concluded that ADF families are essential in providing support to our serving members' wellbeing and their ability to do their job.

She said that with work being such an important part of an individual's health and wellbeing, the "compromised career development of spouses is negatively impacting individual and family mental, financial and social health and wellbeing".

As such, "the implications [of ADF partners' compromised career development] are widespread and concern defence capability and national security, labour force participation and gender equality."

Having been an ADF partner myself, as my husband was in the RAAF when I met him, I know too well the sacrifices that ADF partners make to be with their partners.

Over the last two months, I have delivered a career support program to a group of ADF partners, in partnership with Business Wodonga and funded through the Defence Community Organisation.

It has been an incredibly rewarding experience - one that federal Indi MP Helen Haines talked about this month in Parliament. But running careers programs and providing job seeking support is only part of the battle.

Ms McCue included a number of excellent recommendations in her Churchill Fellowship report.

One of them was to "champion the business case for hiring military spouses, facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between ADF spouse job seekers and employers, and introduce ADF spouse hiring initiatives within companies."

This is a vital element to the achievement of career parity for Defence families.

While developing and delivering the careers program, I had the privilege of working with Sarah Charlton from Soldier-On Australia.

Ms Charlton works tirelessly across a wide spectrum of Defence support, including current serving members' families.

She has forged partnerships with local businesses to educate and encourage them to see the benefits of hiring a Defence partner in their business and commit to providing accessible employment opportunities.

The one good thing that COVID has brought us is greater flexibility in the workplace and a shift in mentality about remote working.

A changing mindset in how work might look has opened up opportunities to tap into an incredible pool of employees who are dedicated and loyal, work well under pressure and in stressful and changing environments, who are adaptable, often have a diverse skill set and are team-oriented.

In times of war, we all rally together around the concept of mateship and "doing one's bit".

But when the frontlines aren't in our backyard, we can forget that those bonds of mateship don't - or shouldn't - evaporate.

ADF partners are valuable contributors to their local communities, workplaces and to the ADF.

Providing them with employment opportunities supports our country, too.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au. Twitter: @ZoeWundenberg

This story Communities must not forget our military spouses first appeared on The Canberra Times.