Sarah Stone: Forget singing, military wives are an untapped resource for businesses

Talk to any business leader about recruitment and they will tell you how hard it is to find the right people. According to figures from the Open University’s 2018 business barometer, 86 per cent of senior business leaders in Scotland reported difficulties in finding staff with the required skills.

Sarah Stone is Founder and Director of social value agency Samtaler

What if employers had access to a supply of capable and highly motivated individuals who were desperate, but unable to work for a reason which had nothing to do with their skills or abilities? The good news is that this talent pool does exist. Its members are military spouses and for the past five years I’ve been visiting military bases around the UK, talking to spouses and researching their experiences in order to develop ways to allow employers to access them.

The Ministry of Defence estimates there are around 70,000 partners and spouses of currently serving members of the armed forces, 90 per cent of whom are female. In 2016 I asked over 2,000 of them about their careers, qualifications, skills and abilities. The response was astonishing; there were police superintendents, corporate lawyers, surgeons and artists, morticians, scientists, HGV drivers, athletes, engineers and jewellers. Despite the incredible diversity, what they all shared was the experience of having their careers impacted by the military lifestyle.

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Military bases tend to be located in remote, rural places where jobs in your chosen field can be hard to come by. Combine this with moves every few years and gaps in CVs soon begin to appear. For those with children it gets even harder because the support networks relied on by other working parents are largely unavailable. A shortage of childcare around military bases, the absence on military duties of their partner, and geographical separation from family and friends all make working full time extremely difficult.

Many spouses choose to take positions for which they are vastly overqualified simply to remain in the workforce, or retrain into professions which are more ‘suited’ to life in the military community. Management consultants become yoga instructors and emergency theatre nurses become classroom assistants. Many more simply drop out of the workforce altogether.

The way businesses recruit, employ and retain staff is changing and this offers an enormous opportunity for both spouses and employers. Businesses who are prepared to overlook potted career histories and gaps in CVs and create roles which can be done remotely and flexibly, will have access to an untapped wealth of talent. Not only that, if you make it possible for a military spouse to work for you, you will gain a loyal, highly motivated employee.

Social value aside, there are clear commercial advantages too. Having access to a skilled, part-time flexible workforce is a lot cheaper than the costs and overheads associated with employing full time staff.

One company who has recognised this is Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS), a multinational talent acquisition agency with offices in countries all over the world. I first encountered AMS at the end of 2017 when they were trying to recruit military spouses into their business and wanted to embed Recruit for Spouses, an award-winning social enterprise, into their supply chain.

Together we sourced and trained a bespoke workforce of military spouses, many of whom had vital language skills, who were employed as recruiters working remotely and flexibly. There are now military spouses working for AMS on a part-time, flexible basis in military bases all over the UK and the company recently achieved Gold status under the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme.

What can you do if you are an employer who wants to access this talent pool? The main thing is to think about the jobs in your business which could be done remotely by qualified, skilled spouses working flexibly from military bases. Don’t just think of ‘traditional’ remote working roles. Think about the skills your business needs to deal with peaks in demand and work back from there.

Be prepared to invest in training and equipping this workforce. This is where a social enterprise like Recruit for Spouses can help you. Many spouses will have been out of work for a while or may not have the exact experience you are looking for but they will have soft skills such as resilience, flexibility, communication and multitasking garnered from their lifestyle which could be invaluable to your business.

By employing a military spouse, you will not only be creating social value by helping members of a disadvantaged group into employment, you will also be creating economic value for your business, and giving you access to a valuable pipeline of talent.

Sarah Stone is founder and director of social value agency Samtaler