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DOD fellowship guides military spouse's workforce return

Military spouse Danielle Calabrese poses in a photo with her three children and her husband, Navy Capt. Dario Calabrese. Photo credit: Courtesy Danielle Calabrese

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For military spouses, finding employment can be difficult and daunting, especially after a big move. But a lot of spouses have the potential, drive and skills that would be great assets to the workforce, and it would be a shame to see them go to waste. Thankfully, a new program placing military spouses into fellowships is already reaping dividends.

In January, the Defense Department placed its first candidates into the new Military Spouse Career Accelerator Pilot, which matches military spouses of current service members - including those of reservists and the National Guard - with paid private-sector fellowships. The goal of this competitive pilot program is for them to gain full-time employment, which can greatly help improve military families' financial security, among other things.  

The accelerator program collaborates with Deloitte and Hiring Our Heroes, which connects the applicants with employers in various industries nationwide. Spouses accepted into the program are placed with companies that match their locations, work experience and other factors. They then receive professional training and mentoring over the course of 12 weeks.  

Danielle Calabrese, who's been a military spouse for 18 years, is a shining example of how well the program can work.  

Calabrese and her three children are currently based in Arlington, Virginia, where her husband, Navy Capt. Dario Calabrese, is stationed. She worked in IT support and as a business analyst many years ago, but between her first pregnancy and a layoff, she and her husband decided she would stop working for a bit to concentrate on the family.  

"Before I knew it, I had been out of the workforce for 15 years," she said. "My background was in technology, so I was finding that the longer I was out, the harder it became to get back in ... and I had less confidence that I was going to be able to re-enter the workforce." 

Calabrese did some freelance work and tried starting her own business, but she missed working with people. As her children got older, she said she was ready to go back to work but wasn't sure how to make that happen.  

Returning to the workforce 

One day, when she was perusing Facebook, she discovered the Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Professional Network. From that networking group, she learned about the new accelerator program and its fellowships, which differ depending on the host company. Her background led her to apply for one working with Salesforce, a cloud-based software and application company.  

"There are so many military spouses that I've met that came into that program with zero technical background - I met teachers and prior nurses - so that certainly isn't a requirement, but it was definitely something that drew me to it," Calabrese said.  

The fellowship afforded her a lot of opportunities. For starters, it was 100% remote, which allowed her to stay flexible around her husband's demanding work schedule and their family commitments. Secondly, she needed to get training to get the certification to apply for the fellowship, and that was 100% covered by Salesforce Military - which helped cut down two major barriers to reentry into the workforce.  

"I was able to go online and take a whole bunch of courses on Trailhead through Salesforce Military and get my Salesforce administration certification," Calabrese said. "That was all I needed in order to qualify to apply for the program." 

In early January, she started her fellowship with Cirrius Solutions, a Salesforce partner. Calabrese took two courses - one was a consulting bootcamp, while the other focused on Salesforce automation. 

"They also assigned you onto a project team, where you could shadow consultants. You would be able to listen in on customer calls to help understand how things go and what the everyday life of a consultant looks like," she said.  

She also said Cirrius has their own internal instance of Salesforce, so the fellows were able to create their own sort of team and do work there, applying the consulting skills they'd learned. 

"We really got to put some of those skills to work ... and get some hands-on technical experience with that as well," she said. "It was a great experience, and we learned a ton." 

From fellowship to full-time 

Employers get a lot out of the deal, too. Through the fellowships, which are free to participating employers, companies get a diverse pipeline of people equipped with education, transferable skills and experience in a variety of roles and industries. They also get a chance to hire those fellows who excel. Calabrese graduated from the fellowship in late March and was hired as a full-time associate consultant for Cirrius.  

"They were fantastic. They did an amazing blend of education and hands-on work so that I could really get in there and get my hands dirty and learn as much as I could in that 12 weeks," she said. "They really are looking to invest in you and to have you get as much out of the fellowship as they can." 

Calabrese continues to work remotely, which is of huge importance if their family relocates again.  

"For a lot of military spouses, you move to a location, and the employment landscape from where you came to where you end up are often a lot different," she said. "I know that not only are a number of military spouses unemployed, but there's also a number of them that are underemployed, just because they may be in a location where the skills that they have may not be in demand, so they end up doing something else that they're oftentimes overqualified to do but they don't have much choice." 

According to the Defense Department's 2021 Active-Duty Spouse Survey, the spouse unemployment rate is at about 21%, even though 62% of those surveyed said they had a degree from a higher education institution. Of the respondents, 48% said that finding employment after a relocation was their most critical problem.  

"Being able to work remotely gives you the flexibility that you need, but it also makes that career portable," Calabrese said. 

Anything's possible when you have help  

Calabrese said she never thought that what's happened to her in the past few months would have been possible a year ago.  

"There was no way that I would think that in that amount of time, I would become an IT consultant," she said. "I'd been out of the workforce for 15 years. Who was going to give me the chance? ... It just doesn't happen, especially in the current climate." 

She said she couldn't imagine returning to the workforce without help.  

"I don't know where I would have started. I think that with the program, not only do they provide the structure, but ... you finally feel seen. They're standing in front of you saying, 'We hear you. We hear the struggles that you're going through, but we also believe in you,'" Calabrese said. "That's just so incredibly unique. It really helps light the fire under you to think, 'Okay, there's a group of people that understands the challenges that we face and are still willing to invest in us because they believe in our ability to do this and do this well.'"  

She said she thinks the fellowship program has inspired other companies to offer internships because she's seen them pop up online.  

"These companies ... are finding an untapped pool of talent, really, that they hadn't considered before," Calabrese said.  

Whether it's managing projects, communicating or even teaching, military spouses have tons of skills that would be of value to all sorts of companies. All these spouses need is to be given the chance to show them off.   

"I feel like that's what the fellowship does. It gives you the chance to shine. It gives you the chance to use the skills that you know you have that you haven't been given the chance to use," Calabrese said.  

How can I apply?  

Military spouses can find more information about eligibility and how to apply for the accelerator program on MySECO, the website of the Spouse Education and Career Opportunities program

As of early May, Hiring Our Heroes officials said the accelerator program had had more than 2,000 initial inquiries since the program launched in December 2022.  

Employers interested in hosting military spouse fellows can visit the Hiring Our Heroes website to learn more.  

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