“We need more Georgians in the workforce,” Scott Hilton, executive director of the Georgians First Commission, announced at an event earlier this year. This may sound peculiar given Georgia’s flourishing economy and low unemployment rate, but he’s right — Georgia can always do better.
The truth, however, is that not every Peach State demographic is reaping the bull market’s benefits, including military spouses. Indeed, they have a shockingly high national unemployment rate of around 16 percent and need the Legislature to reduce unnecessary barriers to getting a job. Georgia, like many states, never shies away from exhibiting the pretenses of being pro-military, but there’s much more to supporting military families than standing for the pledge and cooking out on Memorial Day.
“It’s critical that we take care of our veterans and active members of the military, but we can’t forget military spouses either,” former tank commander and current Georgia State Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, contends. He’s actively working to end their plight and wants to ensure that Georgians do more than just remember military families on patriotic holidays. Sen. Thompson aims to peel away the government regulations that make the demanding lives of servicemembers and their loved ones so much more challenging. To this end, he introduced legislation to help recently transferred military spouses more easily get back to work, and it deserves the Legislature’s speedy consideration.
Georgia is home to one of the nation’s largest populations of military personnel. Over 61,000 active service men and women call the Peach State home, and roughly 53 percent of them are married. However, servicemembers are transferred 10 times as frequently as civilians. This means that their spouses are regularly uprooted, too, and subsequently struggle to find new jobs.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the government exacerbates their ongoing difficulties. Between 35 and 50 percent of military spouses work in fields that require a government-issued occupational license. The positions for which these licenses are necessary range greatly and even apply to jobs like librarians and auctioneers. The licenses are also usually state-specific, meaning that following every move, military spouses must navigate the licensing process yet again in order to work. This often includes paying licensing fees and completing training, even though a person may have decades of experience in the field and another state may have already deemed them capable of performing their job.
The results of this policy are devastating and far-reaching. Most servicemembers are not paid well. In fact, newly enlisted privates earn only around $20,000 a year, which means that military families cannot survive on their government salaries alone — especially if they have children. Given this reality, the longer military spouses are unemployed due to licensing barriers, the more likely they are to apply for taxpayer-funded assistance, thus draining the state’s coffers. What’s more, this policy harms national security by diminishing reenlistment rates. Indeed, 43 percent of married military couples consider the accessibility of careers when deciding whether to re-enlist.
The Georgia Legislature previously identified these problems and sought to correct them. In 2015, then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill into law that vested licensing boards with the power to essentially recognize the out-of-state licenses of military spouses whose husbands or wives had been transferred to Georgia. As Sen. Thompson points out, “While this was a laudable, well-intentioned effort, it didn’t go far enough.” That’s because the law gives licensing boards so much discretion that they don’t actually have to recognize out-of-state licenses. As a result, the statute is not consistently applied.
Sen. Thompson has keenly observed the law’s shortcomings and drafted legislation that follows successful models from other states. If enacted, it would require Georgia’s licensing boards to grant expedited licenses by endorsement to military spouses who meet three criteria: They must already have a valid professional license and be in good standing for the job that they wish to perform; they must already meet the majority of Georgia’s mandated licensing requirements; and they must be married to a service member who was transferred to Georgia.
This measure would greatly benefit tens of thousands of military spouses, reduce unemployment rates, aid military families and boost reenlistment rates. If policymakers want to get more Georgians back to work and help military families in a meaningful way, then this is a good place to start.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.