It’s the Transfer Season, You’re Jobless Once More…

June is almost upon us. In many places around the globe, Foreign Service families are conducting pre-pack surveys, packing out their houses and saying goodbye to colleagues and friends. They return homeless to the United States for a few weeks, staying with relations and friends or shuffling themselves, the kids and their pets from one hotel to another until they are ready to move again, to another part of the globe. This is all part of life that is considered normal in the Foreign Service.

I have great sympathy for those FS spouses and partners who were able to find jobs, because the transfer season also means something else – they are jobless once more. One of my best friends is riding this unicycle again. A job at one post, does not translate to another job at the next post. Excelling at a job at one post, does not mean a whole lot in your next post. A new assignment for the employee also means starting from scratch for their spouses/partners. And when they are in the “starting from scratch” stage, they hear that seemingly broken record of advice from the old — “be flexible,” “reinvent yourself,” keep busy.”

As one male spouse passionately puts it: “I want to shout “Goddamit, I’m not trying to ‘keep busy,’ like poor old grandpa shuffling around his retirement condo, I have a career! I’m good at what I do! I’ve busted my ass to get the experience that I want to put to work!”

Two things made me write this post today. One is an article in State Magazine this month about what the Department is doing to “help” spouses find jobs, and the other is an official report from the OIG about compensation issues for locally employed (LE) staff at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. It includes among other things an example of local employees earning less than $1.00 per day, excuse me $3-$4 a day (corrected on May 16).

The article in State Magazine says “Missions help where they can.”


From what I’ve seen, I don’t know about partners, but at least with spouses – most on the first few years of their tours, appear happy to believe that the Agency is helping where it can to allow them to continue working overseas. You can tell those who have been in the Service for 5-6 years because you can hear them start to question if this were really true. And you can spot those who have reached their 10 year mark, because most have finally come to realize the gravity of their career prospects in the Foreign Service.

The State magazine quotes the director of the State Department’s Family Liaison Office, Leslie Teixeira: “There are not enough employment opportunities within the embassy, and most are clerical and support positions by nature,” she said. What she did not say but the article helpfully points out is that “limited budget means that many positions go to local nationals who are paid on a local scale.”

Let’s put this in context.

The Family Member Employment Statistics – November 2008 currently returns a 404 Error, so I’ll have to use the previously published statistics from 2007.

In the fall of 2007, with 217 overseas posts reporting, the total population of family members overseas was 9,243. Female spouses comprised 80% of the population. MOH and partners are currently not considered EFMs so I presumed that these numbers excluded them. Since no significant hiring also occurred after these stats were published, the 2008 numbers would probably be only slightly changed, accounting for births/adoptions of new dependents and the aging out of dependents. (Children retain the status of eligible family member until they turn 21. Once a child turns 21, he/she can no longer remain on the parent(s) orders and is considered a Member of Household).

According to the FLO numbers, out of this total population – exactly 5,775 family members overseas or a whopping 63% are not working; of those working — 25% do so inside the mission while the remaining 12% works outside the mission.

Extracted from Family Member Employment Statistics 2007
Family Liaison Office, Department of State

In the fall of 2008, U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide employed more than 51,000 Locally Employed (LE) staff in about 170 overseas missions. The total numbers of positions and staff for the Department and other Federal agencies are shown below:

Extracted from OIG Report

There is no way to tell from that FLO statistics how many family members do not work by choice. I think it is telling that there is no statistics reflecting this. I would suggest however, that whatever is the number of the unemployed by choice, they do not constitute 63%.

So — there were almost 6,000 family members not working overseas in 2007, and there were some 5,000 LE positions vacant as of fall 2008.

Isn’t this a match made in heaven? Not so fast…

One of the few times when the State Department was forced to hire family members and US contractors for local jobs, was in Moscow back in the 1980’s when 260 Soviet employees were withdrawn from the embassy. That does not happen very often.

“Missions help where they can.” I’m sorry — but I think believing that is like eating a thick soup of disappointment, with a strong dash of habanero. Too harsh?

But see — even when they can, they won’t. Not because they are evil but because post overseas are holding tight purse strings and must make hard choices. Look — the lowest foreign service position for family members that pays maybe $8/hour would still allow an embassy/consulate to hire a local at $8/day in some places in the world. Or even $3-4 dollar/day as indicated in the OIG report. Maybe not in Seoul, Tokyo or in Europe but certainly, in a large swath of the globe that is possible. So for one US-salaried position, depending on location and standard of living, posts could potentially afford to fund multiple local positions. I would not put the entire lot of blame on post management, after all, its job is to stretch the budget for as far as it can go to fund the mission. In the end the choice is rather simple from a post management perspective — either you keep some spouses unhappy in their journey to self actualization, or you keep most of your mission population together by hiring essential support staff needed to keep the mission and the residences humming.

Somebody said that an unhappy loved one does not have to be the norm … ah, but —

As long as FS family member positions are not centrally funded, we will continue to see high rates of unemployment among the EFM population. And as long as State continue to look at spouses and partners seeking jobs as problems instead of solutions, no one will get central funding for any position. Tomorrow Next I’ll write about State’s soft power approach to spouse employment.

Related Item:
Review of Locally Employed Staff Compensation Issues
Report Number ISP-I-09-44, April 2009 (pdf)