By Elaine Sanchez, AFPS
WASHINGTON, D.C. – First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, urged the nation’s governors to remove employment barriers for military spouses with professional licenses.
“What we are asking is for a level playing field,” the first lady said during the National Governors Association’s winter meeting at the White House. “We … want to make sure that these spouses have a fair shot to pursue their careers and support their families.”
Speaking to the governors and their spouses, Obama and Biden explained that the lack of license portability — the ability to transfer an existing license to a new state with minimal application requirements — is the No. 1 frustration they hear from military spouses.
More than one in every three spouses — or 35 percent of military spouses in the workforce — has a job that requires a professional license or certification. Frequent military moves and varying and lengthy state licensure requirements combine to create ongoing employment headaches for job-seeking spouses, Obama noted.
“More than 100,000 military spouses are affected by this maze of credentialing and requirements – 100,000 men and women,” she said.
The first lady cited Army wife and nurse Kelly Crowley, also an expectant mother, as an example. Crowley, she explained, has moved three times in four years of marriage. And in each new state, she takes on the lengthy and expensive process of applying for a license.
“She estimates that the constant moves have cost her about six months of paychecks,” Obama said. “Six months of paychecks from a woman who wants to work, a woman serving our country.
“And the whole process can be so cumbersome that she’s not even sure that she’s going to go through it again for her family’s next assignment,” she added. “She’s ready to walk away from her career, because the burdens are so great.”
This is a frustration not only for nurses, the first lady said, but also for teachers, child care providers, accountants, real estate brokers, dental hygienists, social workers and thousands of other spouses in careers that require licenses. “And the vast majority of these spouses are clearly qualified,” she noted.
Obama assured the governors this effort isn’t intended to lower professional standards or to set a lower bar for military spouses. They just want an equal shot at employment, she said.
“That’s where all of you come in,” she told the governors. “Each of you has a unique opportunity to make a real difference for these families that have given all of us so much.”
The first lady recognized the efforts of state officials who already have stepped up to help, noting a dozen governors have signed legislation to fix military spouses’ licensing issues.
These officials have come up with their own creative solutions, she said. Some are granting temporary licenses so spouses can work while they fulfill state requirements. Others have given state licensing boards or agencies increased flexibility to grant licenses to spouses who can clearly demonstrate their competence. And still others are granting licenses to spouses upon application pending documentation verification.
Some states are working on legislation, Obama noted, citing states – including California, Louisiana, Illinois and Wyoming — that have introduced bills in the past two weeks.
Still, she added, “roughly half of the country still hasn’t taken this issue on.”
Obama said officials have set “an ambitious, but achievable” goal: By 2014, they want to see all 50 states pass legislation to address licensing issues. This goal is a priority for the nation’s top leaders, she added, including the president, vice president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“But the people who have the biggest impact are right here in this room,” she told the governors and their spouses.
Obama encouraged them to refer to the new spouse employment report, produced by the Defense and Treasury departments, for tips and best practices. Alongside senior defense officials, Obama and Biden unveiled this report Feb. 16 to offer states a roadmap they can use to streamline or expedite licensing procedures.
As several governors paged through this report, Obama also noted the presence of DOD state liaisons at the meeting to help governors craft legislation.
The first lady said she and Biden will continue to shine a light on this issue through their Joining Forces initiative, a national campaign intended to rally support for troops, veterans and their families.
In their Joining Forces travels, they’ve already seen an outpouring of support for troops and their families, Biden noted.
“Americans are stepping up because they appreciate how much our military spouses and families do for our country every day,” she said. “What we have seen since launching Joining Forces has been truly gratifying, because it has shown our military families that all of us appreciate their sacrifices on their behalf.”
Taking on the spouse licensure issue is a perfect way to honor these families, the first lady noted. “If we fix this, we don’t just support our military spouses as they advance in their careers, which is important, but we’ll also be supporting their families who really depend on these incomes,” she said.
Military families do so much for their nation, yet ask very little in return, Obama said. “When they call on us, we have a solemn obligation to answer that call,” she added.
“In two years, what I hope we are able to say — we can look these men and women in the eye and say, ‘We heard you and we acted,’” she said. “We all stepped up as a nation to make it happen.”