FORT POLK — Army spouses bring enormous value to the total Army team — they care for their soldiers at home, manage households during deployments, raise families and provide support and friendship for other spouses.
Many also choose to pursue careers, which can be tricky when the family gets orders to move every few years. These moves can be across the country or even to other parts of the world. The idea of a military spouse having his or her own career ambitions may seem impossible, but according to Nicole Merlino, it is not.
Merlino is an Army spouse (and veteran), working on her MBA, mother of three, and employed with the city of Leesville as the director of finance and human resources. Her story begins at Fort Riley, Kansas, where she met and married her spouse and obtained her education.
“When I got out of the Army, I went to school for business and health care administration, and I started working as an administrative assistant for a cellphone company. I learned some business practices there,” she said. “Then I saw a job posted for the county health department (as a community health planner). I thought it was kind of a long shot, but I knew I met the requirements, so I just went for it and I got the job!”
When her spouse received orders for Fort Polk, Merlino said she thought her experience with the county would work well at a local government office once she arrived in Louisiana.
“I started looking for employment (around Fort Polk) before we left Fort Riley, but didn’t have any luck. I also looked at USA Jobs (for federal employment) and contacted Fort Polk’s (Employment Readiness Program),” said Merlino.
Ultimately, it was her own Internet search into local government positions that brought her to the city of Leesville. “Once I arrived at Fort Polk, I found a position open for an accounting manager (for city of Leesville). I was hired in January (2017) and in September they offered me a promotion to this position (director of finance and human resources).”
Merlino said she understands how difficult it can be for spouses to find employment and have careers, and considers herself lucky for having the opportunities she’s had.
“I was freaking out when we got here. I felt like it took forever to find a job, and I was applying for everything,” she said, but it was only a matter of weeks before she found gainful employment. “The (city of Leesville) job was only the second interview I had, and I got it.”
Her advice to other spouses struggling to start or continue careers is to look for work doing anything, even if it’s not in the field or industry they really want. Her reason: Any job counts as experience and you can learn something valuable.
“When I worked at the cell phone corporation, I didn’t want to be in sales and have no desire to go back to that, but there was a lot to be learned,” said Merlino. She said she gained first-hand experience in many of the concepts she was learning about in college at the cell phone company.
“Marketing, succession planning, performance management — I saw all of that. So I would say finding work that is outside of your chosen field can still teach you something,” she said.
For spouses looking for career help at Fort Polk, Army Community Service’s Employment Readiness Program, which began as the Military Spouse Employment and Education Initiative in 2014, offers a wealth of information, classes and support to military spouses.
This includes resume and interviewing skills, federal application process workshops, professional clothing vouchers, assistance with priority placement for federal jobs and more.
“Spouses just need to stop by and speak with us to find all the great things we have to offer,” said Stacey Delgado, Employment Readiness Program manager. “Another great part of our program is assisting spouses with their Priority Placement Program, or PPP. This is an executive order, EO 13473, and my office assists with providing them the right tools to successfully register and get started with their federal careers.”
Merlino said that while she found the Leesville job on her own, she did take advantage of some of the classes offered by the spouse employment program.
“The more connections you can make, the better. (Delgado) let me know about a few other jobs while I was looking, but the class she offered for resumes was detailed and especially helpful. It explains how the federal process works,” she said.
The Employment Readiness Program doesn’t just help with federal employment. Delgado said the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, or MSEP, includes Navy Federal Credit Union, Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Army and Air Force Exchange Service and others.
“During the last four years, Lowe’s of Leesville has hired about 150 spouses for seasonal hire,” Delgado said. “We work with a large construction firm in Alexandria that has hired four spouses who drive 55 minutes each way because of how great the employer is to them.”
Delgado, an Army spouse herself, said she understands the predicament working spouses face when it comes to finding a job. “Each move can make our careers start over from entry level. We become Jills-of-all-trades,” she said. “Employers are shy to hire us because we (leave) within 18 months to three years and they are looking for longevity. But military spouses come with lots of talent and great educational backgrounds. We know how to multitask, are great under stress, understand change and are adaptable. Why wouldn’t an employer want to hire us?”
Merlino’s supervisor, Patti Larney, city administrator, said Merlino is a great asset to the city of Leesville, and a good example of why businesses should hire military spouses.
“I think employers shouldn’t shy away from hiring military spouses just because they are military and may not be staying here long,” she said. “They can be a benefit to you while they are here.”
Another advantage to hiring Army spouses is the potential for having suitable replacements at the ready, said Delgado.
“We (most likely) know another spouse who can fill the spot we are leaving. That is where I come in — many of the spouses working in the professional arena call me and ask if I know any spouses who would fit the company, and we work as a team to find that employer the perfect match.”
For more information or to get started with your career goals, visit the Fort Polk Employment Readiness Facebook page, drop by Army Community Service at 1591 Bell Richard Ave., bldg 920, or call Delgado at 531-6922.