'Trailing Spouses' Struggle To Restart Their Careers

Employment Firms Helping With Transfers

February 03, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

Audrey Poole was no stranger to having her career as a social workerinterrupted for the sake of her husband's job as an executive with YMCA International. During a 10-year period, she left her own jobs to move with him -- first to Ohio, then to Connecticut, and even to Nairobi, Kenya.

But she wasn't prepared for what she found when the couple came to Maryland in 1983.

"The last time I worked in the field of social work, I was probably making $21,000 or $22,000. When I first came here, I was offered something like $15,000, plus I was going to be supervised by people who probably had less experience in the field than I had."

The WildeLake village resident's frustration is typical of what personnel managers call the "trailing spouse," a person whose career is uprooted when a husband or wife takes a job in a new town. Often the spouse is left scrambling to search for a new job in an unfamiliar city where they have few professional contacts.

A growing number of employers nationwide are paying fees of $1,000 to $3,000 to employment firms tohelp spouses get situated.

In late December, the Columbia employment agency Hickey & Associates began offering its corporate clients such help for middle- and upper-management level employees, along withtraditional assistance such as home-buying and moving expenses.

"Moving is stressful anyway. Overlay the fact that the family does not want to move," said Beverly Thomas, a senior associate with the firm.The stress is further magnified when a spouse must sacrifice a good job, she said.

These combined pressures often leave employees withless energy to do their jobs and can give them a negative attitude toward the company, Thomas said.

"Companies are starting to recognize that if they just move someone without recognizing all of these factors, in the long run, they are going to leave the company, produce less or won't be as happy with the company," said Thomas.

In addition, they might just choose to stay put.

"There is a shift away from undying loyalty to do whatever the employer asks of you," and consequently a "trend toward many people saying 'no' to relocation."

Professional help for trailing spouses doesn't mean finding a job for them, however.

The agency helps displaced spouses decide what direction they want their careers to take given the job market, their lifestyle and professional goals. It assists them in writing a resume and cover letters, gives advice on conducting a job interview and starts them networking locally in their field.

John Flato, manager of employee relations at the Allied-Signal Aerospace Technology and Microelectronics Centers in Columbia, said the trailing spouse is becomingan important consideration in transfers. Allied is one client of Hickey and Associates that expects to use the service.

"In the old days, you would make an offer, and the person would agree to it," he said. "Now it's more of a negotiating stance -- purchasing homes, tax issues, and now there are spouse employment issues."

Hickey has notformally provided the service for any of its clients yet, but the firm has signed on with Careers on the Move, a network of out-placementservices based in Troy, Mich., that is dedicated to helping spouses find new jobs across the country.

Enough companies are interested in providing the service that companies such as Careers on the Move have been able to link human resources firms in 37 cities across the country.

The network enables a company in Columbia, for example, tocontact its local network member for a referral to a human resourcesfirm in the area its employee will be moving to.

Poole says such help could have made a big difference for her.

Without it, "it's all by trial and error, and if there was one person there to say, 'I can help,' then it would have been much easier," Poole said.

In oneinstance, she headed to an interview for a job she doubted she'd want. But she needed a job too badly to reject it out-of-hand.

"Theyshowed me the office, and I saw these enormous piles of cases." The visit convinced her that the job just wouldn't pay enough to make up for the workload and damage to her self-esteem.

In Poole's case, disappointment with the area's social work prospects prompted her to go back to school for a master's degree in human resources. She now does contract work for General Electric helping laid-off employees look for work.

About half of the corporations that belong to the national Employee Relocation Council offer some type of spouse assistance for their relocating employees from the middle management level andhigher, said spokesman Anita Brienza. The council is a non-profit association of 12,500 human resources firms and 1,000 corporations thatfrequently transfer employees.

"As recently as five years ago, only 30 percent of the companies were addressing it in some way," Brienza said.

"It was known to be an issue some years ago," during the early 1980s, but a real estate slump made housing assistance an overriding priority then, she explained.

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