glimmers of hope
Even without Munchkin’s recent antics, there are plenty of worries that keep S up at night. The one that comes up again and again is her career, or — rather — what oftentimes feels like the lack of one. We have written about the travails of being a trailing spouse in the Foreign Service community before, and many of the same realities S found challenging when we embarked on this life path five and a half years ago hold just as true today. Even with an excellent job — and S feels extremely fortunate to have landed a fantastic position in her field — the worry lingers at the back of S’s mind: what happens when this tour ends? Usually, it’s back to square one.
With frequent moves, language barriers, and limited professional opportunities at many of our smaller diplomatic missions, finding employment for the Foreign Service trailing spouse can seem like a Sisyphean task. Over the years, S has been employed under an alphabet soup of hiring mechanisms, including a Personal Service Agreement (PSA), a Family Member Appointment (FMA), a local Personal Service Contract (PSC), and even on a purchasing order. But when she does the math, she has been unemployed a third of the time — and that’s not counting the nine months we just spent in Washington, DC for language training. Unemployment for trailing family members is only half the battle. Many of the jobs the State Department reserves for spouses are less than challenging or only part-time, so it is easy to feel jaded about the possibility of finding consistently meaningful work.
In the past year, spousal employment, which perennially tops the list of FSO concerns, has started to gain traction with the Department. There are several potentially exciting changes in the works, but given the size of our bureaucracy, the wheels turn slowly and it will take time for new initiatives to be fully implemented. The Expanded Professional Associate Program (EPAP), which has been around since 2008, allows American eligible family members to serve in entry-level Foreign Service Officer positions overseas. It is a great program, and one that has been expanded in recent years, but the demand from applicants is still far greater than the number of available positions. S was lucky to land an EPAP position in the Economic section in Nairobi, which sparked her interest in also joining the Foreign Service, but has since been unsuccessful at getting another EPAP job at our subsequent posts.
Being offered a position is often not the last hurdle, as many jobs require a security clearance. S waited six months for hers in Kenya and was fortunate to be employed while she waited, but the delay still significantly cut short her time in the EPAP position. As a result, she only worked four months in the job. Imagine how maddening it feels to find exciting work only to be yanked away from it just as one is finally getting into the swing of things! The Department announced this May that it would create a Family Reserve Corps, which will allow family members to retain their security clearances as they move from post to post, but implementation will happen in waves over the next two years and will disadvantage those without an active clearance in the early stages.
After the scant spousal employment opportunities in Moldova, we were cautiously optimistic that S’s fortunes would improve in Rwanda. S did her graduate research with an HIV clinic in Kigali six years ago and hoped, given the robust development sector and the Embassy’s encouraging family member employment statistics, that she would find meaningful work, ideally in public health. In February, she had a networking call with the head of one of the health agencies, which did not yield any immediate opportunities but left room for a glimmer of hope. The next month S applied for half a dozen positions, including a communications job that was nearly identical to the one she had held in Nairobi. She was invited to interview over Skype for two of the jobs, but neither led to an offer.
And then in mid-March, S saw a vacancy announcement that in many ways held the promise of a dream job. She submitted her application and waited… and waited. After several weeks, she wrote to HR to confirm that her application had been received and was taken aback with the response that although the application was complete it would not be considered for the simple reason that S was not yet physically present in country. S reread the announcement, confirming that this was not a requirement and, after some back-and-forth, breathed a sigh of relief when HR admitted the error and told her that her application would be given full consideration. It only took a month after the interview for S to receive the offer letter, but it felt like an eternity, and when she saw the email in her inbox one morning she may have shed some tears — “mama’s happy tears,” D explained to soothe away the panicked expression that spread across Munchkin’s face.
It is incredible how much of a difference securing a job before arriving at post makes in the transition process. S felt the weight of networking, job searching, updating resumes, completing applications, and preparing for interviews dissipate. Most importantly, from day one S had her own identity rather than having to introduce herself as “D’s wife.” It may seem like an unimportant detail, but not having one’s own identity can be soul-crushing, and the Foreign Service terms du jour — “dependent,” “Eligible Family Member,” “trailing spouse” — only magnify the feeling of personal insignificance. So S can be forgiven for smiling uncontrollably when D recounted how S’s new boss introduced him as “S’s husband” to her colleagues.