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Fact: Military Spouses Need Professional License Reciprocity 

The Good News? States are Starting to Give it to Them 

Colorado Governor Jared Polis recently signed a bill into law that will make it easier for military spouses moving into the state to transfer their professional licenses and start working. Colorado is the latest state in growing list to take steps to ease the licensing process for military spouses nationwide

MFAN Advisor and past President of the Military Spouse Juris Doctorate Network (MSJDN), Libby Jamison.

“These licensing accommodations help the communities where military spouses work and live, in addition to easing the burden on military families and contributing to our national defense,” said MFAN Advisor Libby Jamison, a Navy spouse and the past president of the Military Spouse Juris Doctorate Network (MSJDN), which has been a consistent and early advocate for changes to state licensing processes. “Almost one-third of military spouses with licenses work in the medical and education fields. Many others work as attorneys, social workers, or behavioral health professionals. Expediting licensure of these qualified military spouses increases available workers in these important career fields, especially those experiencing shortages such as teaching and nursing. 

Colorado’s new law will allow a military spouse with an active license in another state, in any profession, who moves to the state because of active duty military orders or assignments, to receive a temporary license that’s valid for three years, at no cost to the military spouse. 

The Data

Respondents to MFAN’s recently released 2019 Military Family Support Programming Survey shared their experiences of trying to work despite the frequent moves required by military life. Military families move, on average, every 24 to 36 months, having to apply for a new license with each move creates a real hardship for military spouses. For some, the challenges become so great that they give up their careers entirely.  

Forty-four percent of survey respondents said they need a license for their current profession or for a previous profession. License reciprocity between statesthat is, that the state they move to will honor a professional license issued in another statewas what survey respondents told us they needed most.  

“National licensure. A teacher is a teacher. A nurse is a nurse. It’s insulting and expensive to have to keep proving ourselves,” a Coast Guard spouse who responded to the survey said. 

A Department of Defense report issued in February, before Colorado’s new law was signed, says there are three methods that states are using to improve license portability for military spouses, with most states doing some combination of the three: 39 states have laws that allow for endorsement of a current license from another jurisdiction; 42 states have laws that allow for temporary licensure, and 31 states have laws that expedite the application process for military spouses. Twenty-four states have laws that do all three. The U.S. Department of Labor created this website to allow military spouses to research the laws in every state. 

According to an Army spouse who completed MFAN’s survey, “I’ve spent thousands of dollars and the paperwork often takes months. I’m licensed in four states. Thinking about it all gives me hives.” 

Spouses Want to Work, But They Need Legislative Help  

Survey respondents said that when the costs of meeting educational requirements and paying certification fees, and the hassle of getting re-licensed in each state, became too much, they were apt to give up their licenses and choose a new profession. In fact, 34.3% of military spouse respondents who needed licenses for their work said they gave up trying to transfer their licenses. They are either not working, or they have changed professions. 

An Army spouse said, “A huge pain. I was a teacher and needed to register for a license in three different states, often requiring more testing or more coursework. It cost time and money and lots of stress. Sadly, I gave up my career.”  

Half of military spouse respondents said the greatest challenge in transferring a license is paying all of the fees required to transfer, and 38.3% said it is trying to figure out what every state requires for a transfer. For others, the licensing process caused delays in them being able to start working 

“I was unable to take a full-time teaching position for an entire year because it took that long to update my license and take the necessary tests. Even though I had previously been teaching in another state for four years,” said an Air Force spouse. 

In families that move every two-to-three years, that sort of delay can make looking for a job seem futile. By the time they’re able to get licensed and start working, it’s almost time to move again. 

An Air Force spouse said, “I did it once moving back from overseas and then when we moved again a year and a half later. I gave it up, it was too much stress.”

States are Listening

In 2018, when now-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was Secretary of the Army, he joined the other service secretaries in writing a letter to the National Governors Association which said that military leaders should consider military spouse licensure reciprocity when deciding on the locations of future bases.

Many states, it seems, took notice and began passing laws like the one recently passed in Colorado. Advocates working on this issue say the pressure from Defense leaders like Esper is starting to pay off.  

Photo by Wyatt from Pexels.

“I’m encouraged by the new military spouse licensing rule in Colorado, particularly because it shows the positive impact of DoD’s emphasis with the states on licensing availability for military families,” Jamison said. “The fact that DoD has made military spouse licensing part of the consideration for future mission basing is critical in continuing to remove these barriers to employment.” 

But for many of the military spouses who responded to MFAN’s survey, these legislative changes can’t happen quickly enough. In addition, easing the licensing process will help many military spouses, but it won’t address the issues that make it so difficult for military spouseslicensed or not—to find work in their profession. 

Removing licensing barriers is incredibly helpful, but we cannot rely solely on licensing fixes to solve military spouse unemployment issues, especially as our workforce struggles to overcome the continuing impact of COVID-19,” Jamison said. We must look at the problem holistically and address barriers for career-minded military spouses caused by lack of a professional network and lack of access to affordable childcare, in addition to licensing issues. 

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