For military spouses, job hunt is a battlefield

IRVING, TX - DECEMBER 24: U.S. Army Sgt. Derek James (L) walks with his daughter Avan James (L), 3, and his wife Madison James after his arrival at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on December 24, 2011 in Irving, Texas. Hundreds of family members and volunteers gathered to meet more than 350 troops who arrived on Christmas Eve for their two-week leave from deployments in Afghanistan and Kuwait. The event was organized by the Welcome Home a Hero program. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

FORTUNE — Millions of Americans are struggling to find work, but one often overlooked subsection of the population has it particularly rough: military spouses.

On Thursday, the 100,000 Jobs Mission — an initiative by 154 companies who’ve pledged to hire 200,000 veterans by 2020 — announced that it will take aim at military spouse unemployment. The group said that it would launch a Military Spouse Talent Exchange, or (MTX), an online portal that will allow companies participating in the 100,000 Jobs Mission to access resumes and profile information of military spouses who are hunting for a job.

The companies involved in the 100,000 Jobs Mission haven’t made a formal, quantified commitment to hire military spouses in the way they have for veterans, but the MTX will address one of the problems companies interested in hiring military spouses often run into: identifying individuals who fit into this category in the first place. Being married to a member of the military isn’t something employers ask about or job hunters list on their resumes, says Rachel Book, associate director of global talent attraction and diversity at AT&T (T), which is sponsoring the MTX and participating in the 100,000 Jobs Mission.

“Any time a conversation about jobs for military spouses is taking place and a company steps up and says, ‘Yes this is a value-add,’ that’s a good thing,” Karen Golden, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), says of the MTX.

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Employment prospects for the 726,000 spouses of active-duty military members and the 410,000 people married to National Reserve and National Guard members are downright awful.

According to a study released earlier this year by MOAA and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, the average military spouse is female, 33 years old, and has completed some college or has a bachelor’s degree. Compared to her civilian counterpart, she is more likely to have children, less likely to be employed, and earns 38% less. Of all the military spouses who responded to the MOAA study, 90% said they were underemployed, meaning they possessed more formal education and experience than what was needed at their current or most recent position.

Employment stats are especially sobering for younger spouses. In 2012, 18-24 year-olds experienced the highest rate of unemployment among military spouses, at 30%, nearly three times more than civilian women in that age range. Female spouses ages 25-44 had an unemployment rate of 15%, three times that of their civilian counterparts.

It’s not that these individuals don’t want to work. According to a 2012 American Community Survey, 55% of military spouse respondents said they need to work, and 90% said they wanted to work.

What’s to blame for the disconnect? Military life.

According to the Department of Defense, military spouses are 10 times more likely to have moved across state lines in the last year, compared to their civilian counterparts. On average, the military family moves every 2.9 years.

Jumping from one part of the country to another isn’t conducive for job stability, and it’s particularly disruptive for the 50% of military spouses whose career fields require licensing or certification. If a move takes a military family across state lines, a spouse who works as a cosmetologist or teacher or lawyer needs to secure new state-issued credentials, which cost an average of $223, MOAA says.

“You go through that process, and then within months of meeting those requirements, you could be moving again,” Golden says. “Then you’re dealing with employers who look at your resume and see gaps. They’re left wondering if this is a pattern.”

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Obtaining new state certifications has become somewhat easier. In remarks to the National Governors Association in February 2013, First Lady Michelle Obama implored governors to take executive or legislative action to streamline state licensing for service members, veterans, and their spouses by the end of 2015. As of August 2013, 40 states had done so by expediting licensing or granting temporary certificates – Michigan, New York, and Ohio are among the holdouts.

For all the challenges they face, military spouses have a unique set of skills that the MTX will allow them to explain to prospective employers. Jamie Rufolo, a military spouse and director of AT&T’s product realization and service delivery organization, has worked for the telecom giant for 16 years and has moved seven times — the latest relocation will send her and her family to Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

“Most people play down being a military spouse. I tell people to play it up,” Rufolo says. “We build relationships really fast as a survival technique. We learn new areas quickly and establish peer groups,” she says. “On a business note, you do the same: You don’t waste any time jumping in and getting a lay of the land.”

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