I have to give fair warning, this post will be very dry.
I was reading blogs with Eligible Family Member (EFM) tags and stumbled across one of my favorites. A post from a few days ago really struck home for me, and has prompted me to write this post.
While that may seem like a crazy thing to say, particularly at a spouse orientation, I was not the least surprised. Spouse orientation was an interesting day for me, and I assume for many other spouses. First, let me explain the backstory.
Prior to spouse orientation, most of the information EFMs receive is from the spouse, who receives the information from the State Department. During the application process, the applicant is given packets about the FLO. The FLO was set up because EFMs had to accept unemployment as part of the trailing spouse position and they wanted that to change. They wanted the State Department to acknowledge that EFMs are generally well educated and have rewarding professional lives. They want to continue to have careers throughout their time abroad. Furthermore, without work, it can be a tough transition, leading the direct hire to seek other employment so his/her spouse can lead a happy, fulfilling life.
Anyway, the direct hire receives all the information about the FLO, the Global Employment Initiative (GEI) and the Expanded Professional Associate Program (EPAP). These programs all sound fantastic! They pass this on to the EFM and accept the job as a diplomat. This brings me to the spouse orientation. This is the first time a spouse is invited to learn about life abroad as an EFM. This is when dreams are shattered. I was told that the best thing to do when moving to a new post is to either telework or pick up a hobby – like writing, photography, or guitar. I had just quit my office job and couldn’t think of a hobby that I liked enough to give me fulfillment for the rest of my “professional” life. They mentioned that spouses love getting coffee, or often find joy in learning new recipes. With each new suggestion, my heart sank a little deeper. It’s clear why I’m not entirely surprised that a C-suite executive spouse was told to try running a daily bake sale.
The most useful portion of the spouse orientation was when an EFM came in to discuss his experiences at his past couple posts. Finally, I was given an honest and direct answer. He said something along the lines of, it was lonely at times. I was working full time prior to our departure so I couldn’t learn the language. I had a hard time getting around, and an even harder time meeting people. I applied for a job at the Embassy, but I never got it. You’ll find it’s very typical for only a single job opening to become available when you’re at post and everyone wants it. If you do get that job, you often have to wait about 6 months for the security clearance. That being said, I’ve never regretted my decision to come along. For every hard day, there’s something amazing I’ve learned, plus I’ve lived and traveled to some pretty cool places.
Later in the day, I was presented with the statistics regarding family member employment. I was quite displeased, for two reasons. First, 60% unemployment seems fairly high, and didn’t give me much hope for finding a job. Second, this includes spouses who are employed full time, part-time, and “as needed.” My opportunity for regular employment started seeming less and less likely.
I tried and tried to find some more honest answers online through blogs, but came up fairly dry. Mostly because a lot of blogs are written by EFMs with children, so it didn’t seem to fit our situation. They filled their days hanging out with toddlers, meeting other parents from school, volunteering, working at the Embassy, or enjoying early retirement. Finally, I was put in touch with a friend’s friend, who is also an EFM in her mid twenties, with no children. She told me that the saying tends to be, assume you’ll be unemployed, finding employment is a bonus. Don’t expect it to be in your career field, and if it’s at the embassy, it will generally be administrative in nature. So, I learned that the GEI hasn’t been as successful as I had hoped.
The most immediate, and easiest, fix I can see for the short term is to include reliable internet as a utility. Housing and utilities abroad are covered by the State Department, but internet has not been added to the list of utilities. This means that internet is not set up in the house upon arrival. This would be fine in the United States, but abroad, it can take 2-3 months for the internet to be fully installed, and in those places, it’s generally very unreliable. These does not provide EFMs with a very good chance at teleworking. If it were included as a utility and the fastest provider was used, EFMs would have an infinitely better chance at teleworking as a career from post to post.
With all that said, there are, of course, some very big pros to this lifestyle. Some people do not want to work and certainly will feel no shame in deciding not to apply for a job. Household help is affordable at many posts, money is provided for each school age child to help cover the costs of the expensive international schools, and housing is provided. It is a great opportunity to travel, experience new cultures and find new interests or better develop old ones. While the career may not be traditional, through part time jobs, volunteer work, some full time positions, and hobbies, it can still be a very rewarding life.
So why have I bothered writing all this, especially since I have a job? I wished that I had found this type of information before we committed to the lifestyle. While it probably wouldn’t have changed my decision, it would have been nice to have made the decision based on the truth. I am very grateful that the FLO, CLO, GEI, EPAP all exist, I just think there’s a long way to go and until we get there, the truth should be made more public.