Alongside the nation's top defense officials, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, unveiled a new report today that spotlights military spouses' employment challenges and aims to remove barriers for the thousands of spouses with occupational licenses.
Speaking alongside Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the first lady and Biden described the magnitude of spouses' licensing challenges and the commitment this report represents in helping to quickly resolve them.
The report, produced by the Defense and Treasury departments, offers a roadmap states can use to streamline or expedite licensing procedures.
"We are all here today ... to say this to America's military families: We are incredibly grateful for your service," the first lady told a packed audience of leaders and military families in the Pentagon Auditorium. "We understand the unique challenges that you face, and we are going to do everything that we can to make sure that you can pursue your careers and provide for your families."
Throughout this decade of war, military spouses have kept moving forward despite the challenges of frequent moves and deployments - all while juggling children and a household.
But when it comes to moving forward in their own careers, "far too often, you can't just keep moving, because you've run into a brick wall," the first lady said. Much of this is due to issues with licensing and certifications, she said.
Obama said she and Biden have heard of these issues at every stop they've made to speak with military families. "It is the number-one issue that military spouses tell us about," she said.
Military spouses in careers that require licenses must confront varying requirements from state to state, she said. A lack of license portability - the ability to transfer an existing license to a new state with minimal application requirements - can cause spouses to bear high administrative and financial burdens as they attempt to obtain a license.
Obama noted the magnitude of this issue. More than one in every three military spouses in the workforce has a job that requires a professional license or certification, she said, citing the report.
"This licensing issue affects more than 100,000 individuals - 100,000 individuals. And the vast majority of you are clearly ready to work when you get to your new state."
The first lady cited teachers, the most common career among spouses, as an example. In some states, they're required to take an entry-level course in state history or another subject before the licensing board will grant them a license. Teachers with years of experience may end up having to take extra classes before they can even apply for a job, she said.
"And that's just what happens in one profession," she said. "When you're talking about dozens of careers, the web of requirements and standards can get pretty thick."
Army spouse Ann Wells, who sat alongside the leaders on the stage, explained the difficulties she had in maintaining her nursing career throughout her husband's 32-year Army career.
Wells said her family moved 10 times and she's long since lost track of how much time she's spent waiting for licensing paperwork to process. In one state, she said, the process was so difficult she decided to forgo her efforts during that assignment.
"We are not looking for a handout, or to change a state's standards," Wells said. "We are simply looking to be able to provide for our families and continue the career that we love."
Spouses like Wells are "why our efforts here today are so important," Biden said. "They are another way we can show our support for those who serve this country."
The first lady lauded the efforts of state officials who have stepped forward to address this issue.
In Tennessee, she said, officials are granting temporary licenses in many professions, which enable spouses to get a job as they work to complete state licensing requirements. In Colorado, the director of their state licensing agency now has the power to waive cumbersome requirements for military spouses who clearly demonstrate their competence, and in Arizona, officials passed legislation to grant licenses, in most professions, to military spouses who have at least one year of experience.
These are different solutions, Obama said, but all enable military spouses to get to work quicker, and all enable states to maintain their professional standards and requirements. Eight other states have followed in their footsteps to create laws of their own, and 15 others have legislation pending or waiting to be introduced.
"But that still leaves 26 states - that still leaves more than half the country - that have yet to address this issue," she said.
The report outlines best practices these states have implemented, and that others can adopt, but avoids a "one-size-fits-all" solution.
"This report," Obama said, "simply provides a roadmap of best practices that leaders across the country can use as a resource as they explore ways that their state can better support these military families. The report contains tips and ideas, not edicts and decrees. But the point is that there are solutions here. This is a solvable problem."
Obama said officials are setting a national goal: by 2014, they want to see all 50 states pass legislation to address licensing issues.
"We know it's an ambitious goal. We know it won't be easy to achieve, but we also know that our nation's military families have waited long enough," she said to applause.
Panetta said this issue is a personal one for him. His wife worked as a nurse while he was in the service, and her ability to practice her career often was inhibited due to licensing challenges.
Panetta stressed the importance of supporting the nation's "extraordinary" military spouses and family members, who serve and sacrifice so much.
"In this building we do everything we can to provide service members with the best support system in the world with everything they need in order to do their mission," he said. "But there is no support system like the family.
"The love, the devotion, the support, the loyalty, the dedication of our loved ones is what makes us get through each day, through thick and thin. We simply could not do this mission without you," he said to resounding applause.
Today is a "good day for our military families and a good day for our nation," Dempsey said. "These are practical real steps to bring more flexibility and portability with fewer obstacles ... for our military spouses with portable careers. It takes some of the rocks out of their rucksacks and it gives them the fair shot that they both need and deserve."
A decade of war has "crystallized exactly how important our families are to the ability to succeed in our missions, and just how fundamental they are to the health, the strength, [and] the readiness of our armed forces," the chairman said.
Obama said she and Biden plan to present this issue to all 50 state governors and their spouses later this month at the National Governors Association Conference here. They'll also rally state legislators, professional organizations and advocacy groups to engage on this issue at a state level, she said, noting the work of the American Bar Association, which is encouraging its state affiliates to make licensing accommodations for military spouses.
"We are ready to roll up our sleeves and do some heavy lifting on this issue," the first lady said.
"We are ready to make this happen, and if we can do this, if we can work together so that every state can find its own solution, we'll once again show all of you - our incredible military families - that America has your back."
Just as troops and their families have committed themselves to their nation, this nation is committed to them, Panetta said. "This department, our job, our commitment, is to protect this nation and to keep America safe," he told the audience. "In helping our families, you are not only protecting them, you are in a very real way, helping to protect America."
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