State Dept Spouse Employment: “Let’s not pretend that this system is working as advertised”

Posted: 12:07 EST
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]


One of our favorite FS bloggers is Kelly from Well That Was Different. She has spent the last 25 years living and traveling in Latin America, Africa and Europe with her FSO spouse.  Kelly recently wrote a blogpost on spouse employment in the Foreign Service.  We excerpted the following with her permission.  We should add that she is not/not an employee of the State Department, so hold your bite, you silly tigers. If the somebodies from the alphabet soup offices read this, we suggest full, undivided attention.

Excerpt from Who Are You Calling Eligible?

Any spouse can tell you about jobs that are advertised, but actually “reserved” for the spouse of a certain officer. Or jobs that are not advertised at all, even though they should be, because someone has already been handpicked for the job. Any spouse can tell you about jobs that were assigned to someone who might not even have arrived at post yet, who might even be on their first FS tour, who simply kicked up more of a fuss than others. Any spouse can tell you about positions that were mysteriously created out of thin air for male spouses who “have” to have a job (sorry, but it happens).

So, let’s not pretend that this system is working as advertised. If it did, then frustration probably wouldn’t be as rampant among the EFMs who choose to participate in it. Spouse employment is always named as the number one morale issue in the Foreign Service. There are valid reasons for this—and they can’t all be blamed on shrinking budgets or post 9/11 security requirements.

A good friend who was once an EFM and is now an FSO says that you have to choose. If you are serious about having a “real” career as the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer, the only option is to become an FSO yourself. If you don’t do that, then forget about having a linear, highly remunerative, career. It’s not a popular point of view, but I have to say, based on over 25 years of experience, that I agree with her. Repeatedly having to compete for scraps at every post is just not a satisfying trajectory. I have noticed that it seems to make a lot of spouses pretty unhappy.

Read in full here.

Only 2,736 eligible family members (EFMs) are working within U.S. missions overseas (pdf). As of November 2014, 64% or 7,449 family members overseas — out of a total of 11,620 — are not working.

Family Member Employment, State Department, Nov 2014

Family Member Employment, State Department, Nov 2014 (click image for larger view)

I went and look at the FLO website just now.  Good heavens, the Global Employment Initiative (GEI) is still on!  That exciting program “helps family members explore employment options and opportunities, and provides career development services.” Want to know how effective is that program? Me, too!


24 responses

  1. Pingback: Juggling | a B, C, D Adventure

  2. As a retired HR Officer, I would like to jump in here. First of all, I take exception to comments made by msx0301: Overseas HR Officers do not write vacancy announcements (unless the cacancy is in the HR section). All requirements listed come from the hiring office. It is indeed true that some offices do write job announcements in such a way as to discourage American family members, such as requiring high levels of the local language, but the HR Officer should make sure that extraneous requirements ae not included. That said, we HR Officers get little support usually, so at the end of the day, the one with more power in the heirarchy usually wins the argument. That would be the Political, Econ, or Consular chief. Spousal employment is a huge morale issue, tied with housing for the number one spot, if you ask me. The organization does little more than pay lip service to it, but then there is no political impetus to resolve it, so we shouldn’t hold our breaths. Eventually, it comes down to post management. Good post managers, at posts with adequate funding, make it a priority.

  3. I am glad this post stirred up discussion. I agree with those that say there is only so much State can do. However, we are long way from that point! There are many simple things that can be done to at least not make our employment situation more difficult than it has to be.

    1.) Ensure the best internet available at post in residences upon arrival so that telecommuters and freelancers can work without interruption.Treat it like a utility, because that is what it is now. This is a no-brainer.

    2.) Streamline the security clearance process for EFMs. The current wait times are just nuts and completely unwarranted.

    3.) Work toward a “free and fair” hiring process at posts: more oversight is most definitely needed and FLO is not equipped (on several levels) to advocate for it.

    There are more, but that’s my top three, right there. If EFM employment were actually a priority for State these would all be done already. But it’s not, and here we are, if anything in worse shape than we were 25 years ago when I went to my first post. Ugh.

  4. I made the decision to stay in as an EFM, and we’re now at 30 years. The pluses have outweighed the minuses, but that’s only because I’m a freelancer with several different part-time careers. What has happened is a lot of zigzagging — I’ve worked at things I never expected to work at, which led to other things happening, etc. I’ve still wrestled with identity issues. But I was also able to be home with my four kids and still afford household help. It’s really up to each individual if the trade-offs are worth it. For me, they have been, but not without cost. But that’s also life — things don’t go smoothly back in the States, either. Also, this isn’t discussed much, but the FSO also can get more than they bargained for in that they become the sole breadwinner — for life. They, too, need to know that going in.

    I’m not sure any program that State can offer will really drastically change this situation, but there’s certainly more they can do. Making sure households have reliable and fast internet already set up upon arrival is one thing (more and more posts are in fact doing this). Allowing spouses to use the APO/DPO for private businesses is another. And make the paperwork/security process a lot faster, please, for jobs at post. Ironic how they trust us with all sorts of things but drive us nuts with the job-related security clearances.

    • Thanks for sharing, Francesca. I do think that State should present a realistic look on what it is like for FS spouses going in.

      I’ve heard separate note on a Global Employment Advisor recommending that EFMs do handicrafts and sell them on Etsy. How many GEI advisors have recommended this, I’d like to know because this is a stoopid advice. EFMs are restricted from APO/DPO use for private business. Having a business online while you’re overseas is only doable if you’re selling locally or if you sell digital goods that involves no physical shipment and handling. If an EFM’s business needs supplies from the U.S. or elsewhere, if you need to mail and ship orders back to the U.S. or elsewhere, whatever little profit you get from your small home-based operation will be gobbled up by shipping and postage fees.

  5. Penny, I know it may be hard to hear, but I think you’re making the right choice.

    If you don’t already have a job that pays what you need *AND* allows you to work remotely from anywhere on the planet, you are better off staying where you are. It may very well affect your marriage, or it may not. But the three choices I listed truly are your only options. Pick the one you think you can live with most easily.

    Best of luck to you & your husband.

  6. My husband and I are facing this very situation as I prepare to head to my first overseas assignment as an ELO. Although we were aware of the reality of EFM challenges as I pursued my nearly 3 year candidacy, standing now on the edge of a decision of whether and when to accompany me to post is complicated in so many ways. For those EFMs who are financially successful and mid-career, and come to a marriage with hefty child support and other financial obligations, the prospect of taking an 80%+ paycut to work at post isn’t only discouraging, it’s impossible. I also don’t have the answers, and I know that every family has to find the situation that works best for them. For us it will likely be three tours living separately.

  7. Some excellent points are being made here. But just in case any potential trailing spouses are reading this and contemplating life in the foreign service, I’ll share my thoughts as the trailing spouse who survived two overseas assignments before eventually returning to the U.S. to work.

    First, ignore everything that you hear from FSI, FLO, State and any other official organization about spouse employment. Employment at FLO and CLO are little more than sinecures for bored spouses, and despite their “official” roles and good intentions the people who work there are powerless to do anything on your behalf. State’s so-called “global employment initiative” is a complete joke (well, except that nobody’s laughing about it). After two assignments I have *never* heard of someone who got a job through GEI. The only thing our regional GEI person ever said that made any sense was “State Department does not owe you a job.” Of course, I never said it did, but that was irrelevant as she then segued into telling me to start a cooking blog or make hand-woven baskets to sell on Etsy. So if you count those things among your career goals, you’re good to go.

    Second, Edward Marks says that a trailing spouse’s unemployment is one of the costs of foreign service, and I am inclined to agree. I just wish State would be honest about that at the beginning, before spouses agreed to the FS lifestyle. The bland platitudes FLO gave me about how hard they work to advocate on our behalf are worthless.

    Third, (and yes I know everyone hates hearing this) much depends on the post and who is running HR there. I worked at one post whose HR officer treated trailing spouses with open contempt and wrote vacancies in such a way as to hire local staff whenever possible. A very, very few posts (such as London) have the unique combination of a bilateral work agreement, no language barrier and low local unemployment, which allow you to work in the local economy. But those posts are extremely, extremely, extremely rare.

    In summary, if you decide to go ahead and become the trailing spouses, ignore everything State tells you and accept that these are your only real options:
    – stay where you are, in your job, and do not accompany your spouse on his/her overseas assignment
    – accompany your spouse overseas, knowing full well that it will interrupt or kill your existing career
    – find a job that is 100% remote and settle into it well before your assignment begins

    Best of luck to you.

  8. >The most interesting change is that the role of the single female professional is now just as >acceptable as the single male professional.

    When you’re 20 and an FSO yes. But in the FS world, when the single male professional decides he wants a partner, his barriers are infinitely lower than the single female professional because women are open to the idea of trailing and giving up a career. It’s just not a thought that occurs to most U.S. born men. To date the single men I met while dating at post who were willing to do so were those very spongers our parents warned us about; or worse covertly in it for the IR1 visa. The exceptions? The one like me who get one or two tours out of it then leave because it’s not a true partnership to make your partner suffer with nothing just for the thrill of living overseas.

    >What may not, however, be actually realizable with any consistency and sense of “justice” is to >pretend that deployed diplomacy permits the existence of the two professional family now common in >the US.

    And that’s the real point. Why not? You say suck it up. Life isn’t fair. But the talent the Department loses by FSO’s like me who leave (especially after the heavy upfront recruiting and training costs) is deplorable in terms of diplomacy and Department objectives; and one would think taxpayers would be slightly outraged too given that they are the ones paying for most of this. And it’s a problem solved by creating a career structure that supports reality and our own society (that we supposedly represent overseas), rather than constantly changing the promotional rules that demand an FSO demonstrate more than one region, a hardship tour etc. just to hope for timely promotion that makes dual careers nigh impossible.

    This is a real problem. And if you try and dismiss it by saying “well the Department doesn’t owe EFM jobs because the military doesn’t or no one guarantees you the option to be a dual career couple” is being facetious. MNCs worldwide address this issue. Other U.S. agencies address this issue. Military deployments aren’t 3 year long tours without family and in fact are in war zones; when they aren’t? Family comes with. Why is the State Department the one that doesn’t recognize the cost to their own talent pool by ignoring it? Why are those of us with jobs which are literally line items in the U.S. Constitution the ones who lag behind?

    • BDG – sing is sister, couldn’t have said it better myself. Just sad to see you (and many fellow talented FS women with equally talented spouses) go!

  9. As an EFM that gave up a professional career to “trail” my spouse, I agree that EFM employement leaves a lot to be desired. However, I have no suggestions on how the problem can be fixed. I don’t expect there to be an available job related to my previous field at every post that we go to. So rather than complain about something that I have no constructive suggestions or solutions for, I have put a smile on my face and worked as an EFM

  10. As an EFM that gave up a professional career to “trail”, I do agree that the system is flawed. However, I try not to complain as I don’t have any ideas on how to make it better. How could the system be improved to offer professional, career-related jobs for EFMs that are engineers, CPAs, lawyers, etc at every post? I don’t have an answer so it’s hard for me to criticize the system. For now, I try to be happy that I am with my spouse and contributing to our household through my EFM position.

  11. My time, too, in the Foreign Service is likely limited due to exactly this dynamic. I’m married to one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30. We are making it work at our current post, and we may be able to do it one post longer. However, long term, I can’t ask or expect someone who legitimately has a bigger and brighter professional future than me to spend their day capturing biometrics, escorting contractors, or clicking EERs through ePerformance.

  12. I left the FS due to this issue, and yes, I’ve seen all the scenarios mentioned above and more. I am surprised no one yet has commented that some agencies at post are allowed to create positions for their employees’ spouses in order to retain talent, strengthen morale, and augment their capabilities. Those positions, of course, are not open to EFMs outside their agency, but their EFMs are allowed to compete for State EFM positions.

    Upon returning home, the Department could waive the requirement of working 12 months overseas in a mission to gain non-competitive employment status, and thereby give many FS families a critical boost to furthering a career, retaining EFM talent, and coping with the high cost of living in DC and a domestic assignment. However, it chooses not to do so. There are many reasons why a spouse may not be able to work 12 months in a Mission overseas, but this issue gets a big yawn and “not my problem” response.

    I enthusiastically applaud those couples who have found a way to make two careers work in the FS, and I hope technology may widen opportunities further. That said, over the span of a career, the loss of a second professional income and advancement is enormous. It is a privilege to serve as a FS family, but the cost is becoming too great to bear for many families.

  13. Fascinating, the fact that BDG considers that because I am a “white guy” (true but how does BDG know that?) is important in this discussion. In other words, as a “white guy” I am not allowed to have an opinion and make a comment? My, my how not politically correct, or is that poltical correctness?

    Also, why does he/she/white/black/Asian/LGBT claim I am standing out for a “traditional 1950s style family life”? To the contrary, I am stating the not very original observation that choices have implications and costs, and almost everyone (male and female) has to make trade-offs. The most interesting change is that the role of the single female professional is now just as acceptable as the single male professional. What may not, however, be actually realizable with any consistency and sense of “justice” is to pretend that deployed diplomacy permits the existence of the two professional family now common in the US. Something has got to give. The problems are not moral or legal or social progress, but practical. As I said, no one expects the military spouse (regardless of sex) to deploy.

    Most adults understand that. Actually, in real life, you rarely can have everything. But decent wine compensates.

  14. Kelly’s post hits the nail on the head. While I’ve managed to keep a career so far throughout our time, most of that has to do with the tremendous flexibility of my employer and not anything that FS has done to make it easier to telework/figure out arrangements etc. I echo what’s above – it’s not that I feel like we’re owed jobs etc, but I do think that every time you so much as inquire about something that’s related to spouses working, you get brushed off with an attitude and expectations that are simply not of the times.

  15. I am an EFM that can’t work at a small post due to the nepotism clause and no bilateral work agreement. While I enjoy taking care of our children, I secretly envy my husband at times because he gets to go to the office and have a career while I have to sit at home. Why isn’t teleworking more promoted for EFMs? I remember the SNAP program and GEI from a long time ago. Has anyone ever found a job through those initiatives besides the people administering them?

  16. And the white guy chiming in just proves my point even further. We women, FSOs and EFMs alike, just have to suck it up because life isn’t fair. In his world, being an FSO with a full personal life is reserved only for those who seek a 1950s-style traditional family lifestyle; everyone else just has to forgo that.

  17. BDG and Madam Consul have already said some great points and yes, Kelly is definitely right. GEI and other initiatives at State are laughable when there isn’t the actual buy-in to do something about this major issue. People like me who continue to do tours without my spouse at post so he can do what he loves somewhere else is not the usual. I am still surprised at how big the gap is between the senior officers and newer officers who all agree this is the most important issue to them. Instead of another taskforce on the latest major conflict, how about a taskforce on EFM employment??

  18. Kelley is absolutely and completely correct, which is why I have opted out of the whole EFM thing. No point pretending that I can have a career when I clearly cannot. Even if you could get a job, there is minimal respect or responsibility since you are there as an EFM (not by merit) no matter what your qualifications are. While I could sit for the exam, there is no guarantee that we would be posted together, and raising two children from different countries is a non-starter for me.

  19. Well, I quite sure that everything she says is 100% correct but perhaps it illustrates that the objective and the system are inherently flawed? Perhaps operating a globally deployed professional diplomatic service does not provide the environment for a parallel spouse employment system? Perhaps we have to accept, as part of the package when you take the Queen’s Shilling in diplomacy, that spouses will either be “traditional”, self-employed artists, philosophers, or absent. One of the costs of the Service.

    After all, military spouses do not deploy and no one expects them to.

    Yes this is ‘unfair”, but so are lots of other things in life which are not curable by better regulations. For instance I have always wished that I were slimmer and smarter.

  20. I just resigned from the Foreign Service due to this issue. I was not an officer who believed that the Department owes EFM’s jobs, but I do believe that the way FSO’s must manage their careers unduly penalizes women, or really anyone who doesn’t meet the old-school 1950’s version of family and career. Male FSO’s can follow that 1950’s model (he’s the officer, she’s the SAHM), and while I would never say that “today’s woman” always wants to be a SAHM, it is still something that is a viable path that many women do proudly, as well they should. But if you’re a female FSO? And want a husband? Men in the U.S. are not raised to see careers as optional, or things to put on the back burner while raising children, so to ask a husband to make this choice is a bigger ask than it is to ask of a wife.

    And this is more so for the mid-career professional versus the new college grad who enters the Foreign Service. If you are mid-career (with an age that reflects that), to ask your husband to give up his stellar career for yours to be replaced with either nothing, random freelance work that isn’t in the area of expertise he has built up over his 20 year career, or the fabulous maybe hope that he can aspire to take fingerprints on the visa line day in/day out? Really that’s untenable. And since I the FSO cannot specialize in a region (that would then allow my spouse to adapt his speciality), I’m forced to choose, be married or be an FSO. And if your only response to this is well then marry another FSO, again, this is not just a snap your fingers and wish it so for a female mid-career professional given that we’d like to have partners in our generational cohort (again unlike male FSO’s who can be 45 and marry a 20 year old with little disapprobation). And one would think, most of us would also like to marry a spouse in the same general SES/educational cohort as well.

    The Department wants a diverse diplomatic corp? Maybe try redesigning what a career looks like and the perks that go with it to support all of those personal situations that aren’t male officer with a SAHM and 2 kids. Maybe recognize that there are plenty of other ways to avoid officers “going native” and forgetting who they represent than making them hop around the world from region to region, dragging a family in tow who sacrifices all in service of that generalist ideal.

  21. Still that same old familiar sorry set of inabilities, no doubt related to a number of other ancient but still living inabilities (or unwillingnesses, as in ‘maybe if we drag our feet long enough, they’ll give up, shut up and go away’) to put out the thought, effort and attitude of serious competence that would fix it once and for all – and without that much difficulty. Kelly is at least ten million percent correct, every word she writes, and what a stupid, inexcusable pity that is.