Denise Hunter's career with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service has taken her from a food-service job in Germany to working side by side with CEO Tom Shull. (Courtesy of AAFES)
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Denise Hunter began her career with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service in 1987 as a food service worker at an AAFES-owned Baskin-Robbins concession in Katterbach, Germany.
Today, she is the right hand — executive administrator to the director — for AAFES CEO Tom Shull.
Through about a half-dozen moves with her Army husband since her first AAFES job, she “knocked on the door” of AAFES at their new duty station each time. And while she wasn’t always able to get the same position, she has held a variety of jobs and received a lot of promotions to get where she is today. Now her retired husband moves with her — wherever her AAFES career takes her.
Highly mobile spouses like Hunter have been forging their own careers with corporations for years, persistently working to carry their jobs with them as they moved with their service members.
Now, with the help of rapidly advancing communications and computer technology, opportunities for spouses to telecommute are on the rise, allowing them to continue to work for the same companies from home. Many also have found jobs with the same company at another physical location.
In years past, some companies were reluctant to hire military spouses because of concerns such as investing time and money in training the spouse, only to have the spouse move on after a few years.
But with help from the White House and Defense Department — which oversee the Joining Forces and Military Spouse Employment Partnership programs, respectively — the tide may be turning in spouses’ favor.
In fact, companies are seeking out military spouses and setting up ways to not only bring them onboard, but keep them.
Keep an open mind
“For me, it didn’t start as a long-range plan, but thankfully it turned into a long-range plan,” Hunter said. She encourages other military spouses to be open-minded and look beyond the most visible jobs at AAFES and other national employers.
“A lot of spouses have diverse skills, like marketing, merchandising, logistics ... [Those careers] are all there with this organization,” she said. Of the 5,645 military spouses working for AAFES, 892 are in management positions in various fields, according to AAFES spokesman Judd Anstey.
The turning point for Hunter was at Fort Irwin, Calif., in the early 1990s, when she met a general manager who saw potential in her, she said — telling her she should be in the company’supward mobility program.
When she became a supervisor, “I didn’t just see it as a job. I saw it as an opportunity for a career,” she said. “It was the first time I said, ‘Wow, I’m a manager. I can do this.’ ”
She was willing to take on a variety of management positions in the ensuing decades, including in the services business (the malls outside the main exchanges), which led to later positions at AAFES corporate headquarters designing curriculum, conducting training and working on policy in that area.
She’s also made strategic choices that weren’t always easy. When she was at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where no management positions were available, she volunteered for a one-year unaccompanied hardship tour to Thule Air Base in Greenland as a shift manager.
Hiring spouses is good business
“Spouses have many of the same traits service members and veterans have — the same leadership skills, interpersonal skills,” said Lewis Runnion, director of Bank of America’s military and veteran affairs. “It’s smart for us as a business because of their skill sets. They are proven leaders in their community, and that’s who we like to hire.”
The impetus behind Bank of America’s job transition program for military spouses was actually a military spouse. In October 2012, an employee of a banking center in Long Island, New York, called to ask about a transfer because his Air Force wife was making a permanent change-of-station move to the West Coast.
“That was the ‘aha’ moment,” Runnion said.
“It’s important and beneficial for the company. Even if they’ve been in a different office, they know the system” and the bank’s way of doing business, Runnion said. The Job Transition Assistance Program includes a priority list within the company that helps military spouses get a job when they move.
But Bank of America has been fostering spouses’ careers in some cases for years without a formal program. Beth Hicks, a vice president and banking center manager in Morganton, N.C., has moved four times with her Army husband in the 13 years she has worked for Bank of America. Her husband, now in Texas, will retire in a few years, so she moved to Morganton because they plan to settle in the area.
“The bank has supported me so much, especially in getting back to North Carolina. There are few positions available in this area, but they helped me find this,” she said.
Look for military-friendly companies
“I’ve actually told military spouses to look for military-friendly companies,” Hicks said. In the long run, spouses will do better financially because of salary increases, the chance to build up a 401(k), and other employee benefits. Among other things, she said, Bank of America has benefits to help employees buy homes.
Hunter said one of AAFES’ important benefits is its tuition reimbursement program — a big factor in her ability to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Military spouses should examine all their opportunities and be open to what’s available, said Karen Golden, the Military Officers Association of America’s deputy director for government relations for military family issues.
She advises finding out whether the company has a specific hiring program for spouses — it could be a Web portal or efforts in conjunction with organized national programs such as MSEP, Joining Forces, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the 100,000 Jobs Mission.
“Background research is the key. Find out where the company has offices and whether the offices are corporately owned or franchised,” Golden said. Look at the installations where you might be moving in the future, and find out whether the company has offices there. Then look at the company’s job opportunities for anything that matches your skill set.
Hicks advises spouses to “own your career. ... You have to be organized and have a plan. Never procrastinate. You know when your [military member] is going to be moving. You have to be proactive,” she said.
If you know months ahead of an impending move, don’t wait until the month before you move to let your employer know because that limits your options and could put the company in a bind when trying to replace you.
During her years of moving, Hicks said she has never had to take a demotion. But getting each new position took planning and action. Whenever her husband got orders, she said, “I’ve always been transparent and let my leaders know when I was going to be moving. I didn’t just leave it up to Bank of America. I am aggressive with my career.”
Her leaders helped her find the right contacts to get a position at her next location.
It’s a two-way street. That early information also helped the bank, giving managers time to find a replacement or giving her time to train an employee to replace her. Her leaders also helped her find the right contacts to get a position at her next location,
“I help them, so they help me,” she said.
No matter where you apply, “Don’t be shy about identifying yourself as a military spouse,” said Cheryl Endres, an Army widow who is military programs advisor for La Quinta Inns & Suites. “Back in the day, companies may have been reluctant to hire military spouses, saying they would only be there for a few years. But that whole mentality has changed from the corporate perspective. It’s an education process the corporate world has undergone.”
Employers want to keep spouses
Employers are finding a variety of ways to keep military spouses once they’re hired.
A few years ago, when an Army wife asked to transfer to another La Quinta hotel because her husband received PCS orders from Georgia, she sat down with her general manager and asked to transfer. That was the beginning of La Quinta’s program for military spouses.
She was able to find another job and has since been promoted — and transferred several times. When a comparable position was unavailable, she took something else, but La Quinta continued to pay her at the higher salary of her previous post.
“When you’re with La Quinta, the only way is up, but we want to keep you onboard,” Endres said. “We’ve found military spouses are hungry to work outside the home. They want to contribute to the family finances.”
From her experience as an Army wife, she knows flexibility is important to many military spouses, and she touts the flexibility her company offers, including full- and part-time work and a wide variety of positions aside from front-desk jobs. One example of “back-of-the-house” employees is auditors, including night auditors.
AAFES has long had a “Spouse Continuity” program to help spouses keep their jobs when they move on PCS orders. La Quinta and others have been developing their own versions. JPMorgan Chase, for example — with 5,600 bank branches in 23 states — is focusing on hiring military spouses as well as veterans and will roll out its job portability program, primarily for spouses, later this year.
“When we have good employees, we want to keep them,” said Maureen Casey, managing director of military and veterans affairs for the company, which has identified more than 30 positions considered portable and set up a networking group for military spouses who are Chase employees.
Navy wife Karina Winkler, general manager of a La Quinta near Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, said her staff is “like my family.” They were supportive when her husband deployed, especially on days when she was worried because he was out of touch.
Like others interviewed, she enjoys working in a place where she gets lots of interaction with military families — in particular, Marine recruits and their families.
She has worked for La Quinta in San Diego for seven years and assumes her managers knew she was a military wife when they hired her. That didn’t deter them, she said — “and they didn’t know we’d be [stationed] here for a long time.”
But Winkler is realistic. She knows that sometime in the future, the Navy may call on her husband to move. And she’s been thinking ahead.
If that happens, she plans to go to her bosses, tell them she’s moving, and ask about any openings.
“When it comes to the military, I go where my husband goes,” she said.
But, she added, “There’s always a La Quinta nearby.”