For many EFMs, the single most difficult part of this nomadic lifestyle is maintaining some modicum of a career. In fact, it’s the main reason I refer to EFMs as “Enraged Family Members.” Because, really, who are you calling eligible? Check out the comment section of this post on Diplopundit, which excerpts from the same blog post linked above. The rage is real.
Spouses are constantly told that “if you want a job, you will get one.” That’s not always true, and certainly not for anyone looking for a rewarding, remunerative position in their field. According to the most recent Family Member Employment Report, 56% of EFMs are unemployed, 14% work outside the Mission, and only 30% are employed within the Mission.
Employment for EFMs varies from post to post, but a few things remain constant: it’s a slow process, opportunities are fairly limited, and pay is comparatively low. During the MSG spouse training, we were pitched EFM jobs with an anecdote about how we could “literally get paid to watch paint dry.” Here in Tegucigalpa, highly-educated, highly-experienced spouses are sometimes left fighting for part-time positions or full-time positions that feel somewhat like, well, scraps. It’s no fault of the HR Officer, CLO, or any one individual, it’s just the product of the system that’s been around far, far longer than I or any other spouse. (To the contrary, I think we have some spectacular EFM advocates at our post, though I’ve heard horror stories from elsewhere.)
Of course, there are jobs to be had. But once you do receive a job offer, you face the long wait for your security clearance before you can begin. From my experience, most spouses wait about 5-6 months for the coveted clearance, with outliers waiting as little as 2 months and as long as 12+ months. That’s an unbearably long time when you’re sitting in a walled compound in somewhere like Mauritania with few things to fill your day (or your bank account).
I’ve been equally fortunate and frustrated to have stayed out of this process at our first post, as I’ve been able to continue my job from the U.S. remotely. More and more, spouses are encouraged to look for remote positions to fill the gap in EFM employment opportunities. Right now, of the 14% of EFMs employed outside the Mission, only 16% self-identify as “teleworkers” and another 24% consider themselves freelancers, which I would take to mean part-time. Those numbers might indicate most spouses haven’t considered working from home, or might be scared off by the idea. Let’s break it down from one EFM’s perspective:
The Pros of Working Remotely as an EFM:
- Portability: Veteran EFMs remind me almost daily how lucky I am to have a job that I can “take anywhere.”I can work continuously, without having to give up my position and start from scratch every 2-3 years with each rotation. I can work at post, while traveling, and during trips home, all without taking time off, if I so choose. Those two aspects alone might justify going remote, particularly for Foreign Service spouses who are in it for the long run. (For MSG spouses in particular, of course, the stakes are different. You’re only committed to this overseas lifestyle for 3 years, so perhaps continuity isn’t as critical. Adding Embassy experience to your resume could help you stand out amongst fellow Marine spouses when you end up back in podunk fleet towns like Cherry Point or Yuma.)
- Remuneration: I have seen the pay scale for various EFM positions, including what I’ve been told is the “highest paying spouse job around”, and it’s paltry. For an early-20s spouse with his or her degree fresh in hand, it’s a great starting point. But for someone with 5, 10, or even 15 or more years of experience, wages are low and there’s little room to grow. If money is a concern, working remotely in the private sector is absolutely the way to go.
- Flexibility: I work a regular, 8ish hour work day Monday through Friday, so I probably have considerably less flexibility than remote workers with non-traditional hours. But even my independence and flexibility is an undeniable benefit. With no one physically hovering over my shoulder, I’m able to run to the grocery during the middle of the day when traffic is at its lightest. I’m conveniently home when the roofers show up unannounced to fix a leak or the water delivery man shows up to replenish our stock. I can venture downstairs for 5 minutes to move over a load of laundry, so it never piles up. These little conveniences go a long way.
- Job Selection: With EFM positions, you sort of have to take what you can get. Registered nurses end up working as part-time security escorts and experienced educators may take jobs as secretaries. Who knows, maybe you will love the change in career track or the part-time schedule. But if you want to leverage your existing skills or work full-time, there is no guarantee. If you’re hunting for a remote position, on the other hand, you’re only limited by your own skillset.
- You’re out of the bubble: For some spouses, it’s strange to work in the same small space as your spouse, your friends, your children’s friends’ parents, your doctor, your repairman, and so on. It is the definition of a bubble. Everyone is in everyone’s business, literally and figuratively. Being on the outside of the bubble has obvious perks.
The Cons of Working Remotely as an EFM:
- Isolation: I suspect this is strongly correlated to your post, but at a critical crime post where we’re not allowed to walk anywhere (and there are few places to go anyway), working from home all day is almost unbearably isolating. When I run up to the Embassy for a quick errand (see Pro #3), I find myself lingering longer than is needed because there is so much going on and so many people to catch up with. You don’t realize how starved you are for human interaction until you sit alone in your house practically all day year after year. In countries and cultures where you can stroll down the street and meet a friend for a quick 30-minute coffee break, perhaps this is less of a concern, but I’m doubtful. The New York Times recently ran a piece entitled How Social Isolation is Killing Us, which describes how the “growing epidemic” of social isolation has “dire physical, mental and emotional consequences.” It hits the secluded remote worker right in the feels with its accuracy.
- Connectivity: Reliable internet access is the biggest threat to remote workers. Our connection here in Tegucigalpa is strong enough for me to do 90% of the work I was doing in the States, but there are occasional days when it randomly cuts out for a few hours, and it drops out for a few minutes, a few times a day, almost every single day. Those are but small annoyances compared to internet connections in the more developing world. Moving to a post with an unreliable connection is a huge threat to your career trajectory (see Pro #1).
- Scheduling and holidays: The flexibility of remote work goes both ways. Time zones are annoying when trying to schedule a Skype call with your parents. They’re a whole different animal when you have meetings to attend and calls to make. Your typical 10am staff meeting might become a 7am meeting or even a 9pm meeting, a problem for those who want “normal working hours.” Holidays are also a thing, and they exist in abundance for Embassy employees who receive both U.S. Federal holidays and local host country holidays. For Honduras, that added up to about 20 days off, the majority of which found me still sitting in my office typing away. It’s truly a first-world problem, I know. But when you come on MSG to travel, the best times to actually travel are when the Embassy is closed for a 6-day weekend.
- Limited Fields: Even if remote working is up your alley, it might not be available to you. If you work in computer engineering or graphic design, remote positions abound. If you’re a physician’s assistant or a chemical engineer … probably not so much. You might find yourself needing to learn or re-learn skills to make yourself competitive, but State does provide funding opportunities for professional development. (On the other hand, learning to code or studying Photoshop is probably more valuable than “literally watching paint dry” in terms of building and maintaining a resume.)
- You’re out of the bubble: Contrary to Pro #5, being on the outside also has its downsides. This is an extension of Con #1, but it’s amplified in State Department life, since you rely on your spouse for everything from community news to filing work requests for your home. When your spouse is out of town and the garage door is stuck open, you don’t have access to Intranet to file a work request and have to start annoying people. You can’t truly escape the bubble (at least not as posts like this), so you might as well join ’em, right?
So there you have it. It’s a personal and professional choice that depends on your given field, family situation, and finances. I’m immensely grateful to my employer for keeping me on while I bounce around the globe for these few years. But there’s always been a hint of doubt in my mind that perhaps this experience would have been better in terms of personal fulfillment had I tried harder to work at the Embassy. Of course, knowing what I know now, I’m glad I didn’t give it up. Had I abandoned my job to work at the Embassy this time around, I’d be facing a problem shortly as our upcoming post has a total of 6 EFM positions, of which zero are full-time and zero are currently available. Isn’t trying to plan anything in this lifestyle so much fun?
For as long as periodic unemployment remains the only alternative, the choice is obvious. For those looking to escape the EFM employment quagmire, I encourage you to try working from home if your field accommodates it. Nowadays, major recruiting sites like Indeed and Idealist allow you to filter specifically for remote positions.You can also join remote-working communities like Remotive or We Work Remotely, or go through agencies like ServingTalent, a start-up formed by two EFMs stationed at the Embassy in Chile.
Ideally, spouses’ skills would be better leveraged in the Mission, wait times for clearances would be streamlined, and the entire process would be more transparent. Until then, remote work might be the career-oriented Enraged Family Member’s most viable profession.