By Kristina Mullis
Each year, the number of challenges experienced by military spouses is recognized and appreciated during the month of May as a part of National Military Appreciation Month.
As a worldwide initiative, Military Spouse magazine launched the Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year award 10 years ago to recognize achievements by spouses from all branches of service. Candidates are nominated from each base and selected through an online vote. From there, candidates move into branch voting, and one candidate is ultimately chosen as the national military spouse of the year.
Lindsey Savage was selected as the Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka 2017 Military Spouse of the Year.
A lawyer by trade, Savage specializes in copyright and trademark law and has worked primarily in media and business law. She said she wanted to be a judge since 8th grade and followed that path after working in the media and entertainment industry post-graduation. While attending law school at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, she participated in a study abroad program through Temple University that landed her in Tokyo in 2008. It was there she met her husband, and she has been a voice for the military spouse community ever since.
Military Spouse Employment Gap
For Savage, the MSOY honor is a way to enhance advocacy efforts for issues plaguing military spouses.
Out of the many challenges military spouses experience, especially when overseas, Savage said one of her biggest concerns is employment.
“I talk to everyone about military spouse employment,” Savage said. “There are unique restrictions and barriers for spouses who want to work overseas.”
Her concern is not unfounded. The Military Officers Association of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University released study results in 2014 that found 90 percent of female spouses reporting being underemployed or overqualified for the positions they held. In addition, military spouses were found to earn 38 percent less than their civilian counterparts while also being 30 percent more likely to be unemployed. A study by Blue Star Families in 2016 determined that the unemployment that affects military spouses as a result of the military lifestyle costs the U.S. economy almost 1 billion dollars per year.
On FLEACT Yokosuka, spouses have an opportunity to use a spouse preference when applying for positions. Among other restrictions, the preference can be used only once per duty station. As of April 2017, there were 99 civilians working in civil service positions on overseas family member appointments, including General Schedule (GS) positions. This includes both military spouses and family members of the U.S. Civil Service civilians overseas. In addition, there are about 150 military spouses employed in non-appropriated funds (NAF) positions, including areas such as Morale, Recreation and Welfare, Child and Youth Programs, and more. Spouses make up about 39 percent of NAF positions at FLEACT Yokosuka. Other sources for spouse employment include contractors, on- and off-base home businesses, teaching English at local schools or through private lessons, opportunities to work in the economy and more.
While there are opportunities, military spouses often face a number of barriers when contemplating employment.
Savage is currently in Yokosuka for a second tour, and she said she has had two very different experiences. She lived off-base and commuted to Tokyo for work as a lawyer during her first Japan tour from 2009 until 2011.
In her return to Japan since 2015, her family has grown to include three children. Her dedication to employment, however, did not change. Currently, Savage works as a contractor through the federal government (not as a practicing lawyer) and continues to do pro-bono work for home businesses with legal concerns.
“Military spouse home businesses are a benefit to the community,” Savage said. “If I can help, I do.”
Throughout her time in Japan, Savage said she has witnessed a number of barriers that make work especially difficult for spouses overseas: SOFA restrictions on employment, the language barrier that limits working in the economy, the sometimes long process of getting hired on in a federal position or other positions and more. She added that those who have professional or higher-level degrees such as law, education or finance, often have the additional challenge of having to commute to either Yokohama or Tokyo.
Savage said there’s also an additional reason why spouses may choose not to work – to explore Japan.
“The positive side to these barriers is that many spouses want to fully experience Japan while they’re here,” Savage said. “Taking a job can limit being able to experience all the cultural aspects of Japan.”
Creating a Community
Savage aims to take her personal experiences and those of other spouses and create a community that not only discusses concerns and issues but also opportunities available for fellow military spouses.
Earlier this year, she helped launch Carrying Your Career OCONUS, a group that brings together career-minded spouses to discuss employment related concerns and opportunities. The group’s first event featured a panel of speakers in different areas of employment, guest speakers and workshops with about 75 participants.
“We had a really great turnout at the first event,” Savage said. “It’s a great way for spouses to come together and support each other.”
Currently, the organization is looking to expand by adding club officers and is recruiting those interested in serving in leadership roles.
Another developing opportunity for career-minded spouses is a Milspousepreneur chapter in Yokosuka. The organization began in Okinawa in July 2014 after a military spouse saw a need to foster an entrepreneurial culture to overcome restrictions that came along with operating a business while living overseas.
Amy Jo Davies, a military spouse here in Yokosuka, led the initiative to launch a chapter here after finding that several small business owners in Yokosuka were looking for solutions to some obstacles they were facing as well. She said that starting businesses overseas comes with its own set of challenges.
“Owning and operating a business while stationed overseas has many limitations enforced by the command,” Davies said. “Specific areas that small business owners and others have voiced include the small business approval and renewal process, policies being changed without prior notice to make accommodations with business models and plans, and more.”
Davies said this type of organization is not new and is similar to organizations such as the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce or Small Business Administration back in the United States. Milspousepreneur offers opportunities to SOFA-sponsored members who have an approved small business or have the intent to have an approved business within six months. She added that the value of small businesses to the community and to individual spouses is invaluable.
“The amount of talent and experience spouses bring with them overseas is overwhelming,” Davies said. “Many military spouses choose to become small business owners as a way to maintain employment between duty stations and rely on this income to support their families. As a whole, it creates a better climate and a stronger command.”
While Milspousepreneur is limited to business owners, Savage said she expects both groups to see some overlapping of events, as both groups are working to create a community of like-minded spouses. Moving forward, Savage said that the success of both groups depend fully on the community and what members want to get out of the opportunities.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the organizations grow and develop over time,” Savage said. “These are great organizations to bring people together for the same cause. The goal is to get people involved, get people out there and to connect with others.”