Elizabeth O’Brien Gorkowski married into the Army 9 1/2 years ago. She’s moved seven times since then.
Through most of the stops, Gorkowski, 42, kept her career as a college basketball coach moving forward. She’d find a spot wherever her husband moved, from Hawaii to Germany and most of the places in between.
“It’s just like being in the Army,” she said recently. “Coaching is a small world. You use your networks and connections to get to the next place.”
Now Gorkowski’s working to help other military spouses build their own transportable careers.
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She’s part of the “Year of the Military Spouse,” a program backed by a national nonprofit that was among the first to call attention to rising unemployment rates among young veterans during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The organization, Hiring Our Heroes, visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord last week for a job fair that catered to military spouses.
It drew more than 300 local spouses looking for opportunities with about 50 employers. That’s about double the size of a typical hiring event for military spouses.
Hiring Our Heroes wants to make a dent in an unemployment rate for military spouses that persistently hovers around 25 percent despite recent corporate pledges to find more jobs for them. The rate for veterans of the recent wars is 5.7 percent, close to the national unemployment rate of 4.9 percent.
Gorkowski spoke with The News Tribune about the campaign.
Q: How did you find your way to Hiring Our Heroes after your work as a basketball coach?
A: The moves became challenging to remain in that career field. When we were transitioning back from Europe to the States, I pulled my résumé apart and picked out all the things that will translate to the private sector.
I realized, in coaching you recruit people and on this side you recruit people. So there were a lot of parts that lined up on the nonprofit side.
Q: From your experience and your network, what’s the main obstacle holding back careers for military spouses?
A: It’s the moves. If it’s Army side, it’s every three years. If it’s Navy, you can be moving every year.
How do you make those connections every time you move? How do you plan? That was a need we had to address.
We recently acquired a nonprofit called In Gear Career. They have chapters across the country. Military spouses will meet monthly, and it creates a network. We have chapters in Bahrain, Italy and all over the continental U.S. Now, when a spouse is moving from Tampa to JBLM, she or he has a contact.
Q: Are there any particular careers that are more difficult to move than others? I often hear from lawyers.
A: Right, because of the bar. There are great organizations that are fighting daily and advocating daily to lift those restrictions.
The Military Spouse JD Network is one that lobbies on behalf of spouses. They’re working for reciprocity, getting from state to state without requiring they take the bar each time they move. So slowly but surely, states are extending reciprocity.
What we have found is the jobs that used to be sure things, like teachers and nurses, they’re presenting their own challenges because of the certification and license requirements that come into play now.
Q: There are a few dozen companies here at the job fair. How are they finding ways to retain employees who probably will move every few years?
A: The best thing about the employers out here today is that we vetted them very carefully. Everyone understands the mission. Everyone has jobs available. Everyone understands the need to support military spouses and their career paths.
Of course, it’s not a guarantee that you get to keep your job as you move across the country, but the opportunity is there to create a career path for yourself.
Prudential has done a great job hiring folks remotely. Some folks have never even worked in their main facility. They’re teaching other (companies) along the way, and that’s really inspiring for military spouses.
Q: What will it take to really bring down unemployment for military spouses?
A: It’s a hard number to track. Every weekend, 1,500 spouses marry into the military, so you are immediately unemployed if you are marrying in and moving.
Obviously the veteran unemployment rate has been tremendously impacted over the last several years. However, unemployment for military spouses still hovers around 25 to 26 percent.
By launching the “Year of the Military Spouse,” we’ve reached out to our nonprofit partners, we’ve reached out to our employers, to re-engage them, refocus them to keep it in the spotlight.
Q: How’d you get this turnout today?
A: The state of Washington is far and above and sets the standard. When we start our planning process, we’ll have 15 people from different organizations all over the state dialing in. It’s a lot of people working hard to make this happen.