GAO: Management of job placement services for military spouses could be better

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The Pentagon has poured millions of dollars into new programs over the past few years to help military spouses find jobs, but it’s not clear yet how effective those services are, according to a new report.

The employment assistance services for military spouses offered by the Defense Department sometimes overlap and can be difficult to navigate because of inconsistent guidance from the Pentagon, gaps in coordination and unreliable or nonexistent performance measures, the Government Accountability Office found. The Defense Department partially agreed with GAO’s findings, but said it already is working on clearer guidance and performance measures and eliminating duplicative services, and is contracting with a research group to evaluate the effectiveness of its employment assistance programs. Since the Pentagon launched the departmentwide employment assistance services in 2010, more than 32,000 military spouses have been hired by companies who have partnerships through one of the programs Defense runs, according to the department.

There are approximately 725,000 spouses of active-duty service members, and more than 90 percent of them are women, according to GAO’s report. There’s a 26 percent unemployment rate among military spouses, and a 25 percent wage gap between the group and its civilian counterparts. The frequent moves that come along with military life and primary child-rearing responsibilities contribute to the difficulty military spouses experience finding and keeping jobs.

Since the 1980s, the individual military services have operated employment assistance programs at installations. During the last two years, the Pentagon introduced three new programs to complement the existing services: a tuition assistance program to help spouses further their education; an employment partnership with companies and other government agencies that helps connect spouses to available jobs, and a career center offering counseling and information online and over the telephone. The department spent $54.8 million on the tuition assistance program and $1.2 million on the employment partnership program in fiscal 2011 alone.

In addition, federal agencies can use a non-competitive authority to hire qualified military spouses without going through the competitive hiring process. Defense also has a military spouse preference program that gives the group priority in selection for certain Defense jobs. Neither authority guarantees a spouse a job with the government. In fiscal 2011, agencies used the noncompetitive authority to hire about 1,200 military spouses, and the Pentagon has placed about 12,500 military spouses into civil service jobs during the past decade.

GAO officials talked with military spouses and program managers who praised the Pentagon’s efforts and cited the many benefits of the current employment assistance services. Still, Defense needs to do a better job organizing the number of available resources and making it easier for people to navigate the system. For example, the names and terminology the department uses for programs vary across installations and websites, creating confusion; in other cases, administrators aren’t providing military spouses with comprehensive guidance of resources available to them, GAO found. Some of the career center’s services overlap with those provided by the individual military agencies, creating redundancies.

The Pentagon said it plans to follow-up with spouses who use the career center to see if they’ve found jobs and collect data on those who complete their education through the tuition assistance program. In addition, the department has been conducting a survey of spouses to get updated information on unemployment rates. The department also is working on streamlining the services offered through its network of employment assistance programs to make them easier to use and manage.

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