Margeaux Challenger, an Air Force wife, was one of the early participants in the Defense Department’s new Military Spouse Career Accelerator Pilot program, and it has changed her life.

Now, she is encouraging other spouses to give it a try and “see what they can do for you.”

Through the fellowship program, Challenger was matched with a company in Tacoma, Washington, that needed her software development skills. At the end of the fellowship, the company hired her full-time. And Challenger, whose job is fully remote, has already been able to take her new job with her this year on a permanent change of station move in July from Washington state to the Washington, D.C., area.

“It’s just been a completely different move, knowing I was already employed with a company that has first-hand knowledge of PCS stressors and military chaos,” Challenger said.

“Financially we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we have been in the past. Without the help of Hiring Our Heroes [which administers the DoD program], I wouldn’t have received the highest salary I’ve ever been offered. No one tried to undercut me because I was a spouse. In fact, I think it contributed to the salary ranges I was encountering. The employers seemed committed to hiring career-ready candidates and paying them fair wages.”

Challenger is one of 153 spouses who have completed fellowships under the pilot program, which began taking applications Dec. 23. Of those, 113 spouses — nearly three-fourths — had been hired by their employer host as of Aug. 7, said DoD spokeswoman Jade Fulce. The average salary of those new employees is more than $60,000, Fulce said.

“The department is very pleased with the initial results,” she said.

“We know that military spouses are highly educated and have amazing experience,” Fulce said. “MSCAP has proven that even spouses with a strong educational background are finding meaningful employment difficult; 88% of placed fellows have at least a four-year degree, with 31% having an advanced degree.”

DoD pays the salary of spouses through a third party while they are in the fellowship program; as of June, that outlay amounted to about $800,000, Fulce said.

The three-year pilot program is open to spouses of currently serving members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Space Force, to include active, reserve and National Guard components.

The fellowship pilot program is just one initiative DoD officials have undertaken to address the persistent problems military spouses face in establishing and maintaining meaningful careers, especially given the frequent uprooting due to permanent change of station moves.

For years, the unemployment rate of military spouses has hovered around 22%, although numbers vary widely. The rate isn’t officially tracked by the government like other sectors of the population, such as veterans.

“Career ready” military spouses accepted into the program are placed with host companies across various industries that match their location, work experience and other factors. Spouses receive professional training and mentoring.

The top fields of spouses currently in the program are information technology, business operations and administration, human resources and program/project management.

DoD officials contracted with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes to run the fellowship program. The foundation has long been involved in helping military spouses connect to job opportunities.

There are many highly qualified military spouses in the candidate pool, Fulce said. Since the application process began in December, more than 3,500 spouses have started an application for the MSCAP fellowship; and more than 1,000 spouses have completed the application process. To date, 765 spouses have been placed in the fellowship candidate pool, Fulce said.

Of those, 224 have been placed in fellowships and 153 have completed their fellowships.

Wanted: More employers

More employers are needed to consider hosting a military spouse fellow, Fulce said. Its key attraction is that DoD pays a salary to the military spouse while he or she is working for the host employer.

“With a greater than 70% hire rate post-fellowship, the proof is there regarding the value that military spouses bring to the workplace,” she said.

The program has received applications from 162 employers; 129 are currently hosting fellows. The employers consist of a mix of small businesses, corporations and nonprofits. Those 162 employers are in addition to the employers Hiring our Heroes was already working with, Fulce said.

Fellowships are available across all 50 states, based on employer interest; military spouse fellows are being hosted in 19 states, but more than 70% of those fellowships are remote, Fulce said.

This was not Challenger’s first rodeo.

She took part in another DoD spouse employment pilot program, administered by a different contractor, but the result was far different. That contractor was supposed to place military spouses in jobs after providing training, she said, but failed in that effort and then cut off all communication with spouses.

“They didn’t have anything lined up for us,” Challenger said.

Even so, the software development training she received, also funded by DoD, did provide what she needed to get the fellowship in this separate program, she said.

She believes this pilot program has been successful largely due to the efforts of Hiring Our Heroes.

The foundation is in frequent contact with the spouses, Challenger said, including weekly check-ins. The program also helps them build networks and make connections with employers. Networking is an area where spouses often struggle because of the frequent moves.

Hiring Our Heroes also sends out resumes of spouses on a regular basis to partner companies who may be looking for fellowship candidates or who may want to interview spouses to hire them directly. Challenger had a number of interviews when these employers contacted her.

The application process was easy, she added.

No one is guaranteed an offer of a job after the fellowship, but 74% have been hired by their employer host, Fulce said, adding that “more than 30 spouses have been offered employment prior to the end of their fellowship, further proving their value and skill sets they bring to employers.”

She notes that the MSCAP is a “very competitive program,” so officials advise military spouses to take advantage of all the resources they have to ensure they are being promoted to prospective host employers. That includes the no-cost career coaching offered by DoD’s Military Spouse Education and Career Opportunities program.

For some spouses, now may not be the right time to explore this opportunity, Fulce acknowledges.

“But MSCAP is a three-year pilot, so when you are ready, we are here to support.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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