To Retain More Parents, The Military Offers A Better Work-Life Balance

Oct 12, 2016
Originally published on October 13, 2016 12:13 am

The military is famous for working long hours, not only on overseas deployments to hot spots like Iraq or Afghanistan but back home, too. It's almost a badge of honor.

So balancing work and family life can be especially difficult for those in uniform. Take Air Force Maj. Johanna Ream.

She's working a high-powered, top-secret job. Her husband's an Air Force cargo plane pilot who flies all over the world. And they were the parents of an infant named Jack when this happened:

"I was pregnant with my second child," Ream says, "and I was tired, working full-time, having an 8-month-old. And I was like, 'You know, I could really use a break.'"

She did get that break, through a program called the Career Intermission Program. It allows service members to take one to three years off – while retaining benefits and receiving a small percentage of their usual monthly pay. For those who take time off, their career is effectively frozen while they are away, but they are not penalized when they come back and seek future promotions.

Ream wanted to take a year off to care for Jack and her new baby, Mary. She considered it an extended maternity leave.

"I love my career. I love what I'm doing," she says. "I just needed a short break."

Taking Time Off

Now scores of military personnel like Ream are taking time off to study, travel or – more often than not – raise kids. And most of them are women. But the numbers are still low, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO said the program is underused and cited as one reason the low percentage of monthly pay that is allowed under the program.

Another reason? Commanders discourage participation. They worry that losing a service member, even temporarily, will hurt their operation.

But senior Pentagon officials have a different concern. They want to retain the best people, especially women, who drop out at a higher rate than men.

"We know that at 10 years of service, when women are at the peak of their careers for starting a family, women are retained at a rate 30 percent lower than men across the services," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in June.

Ream says these programs came too late for some of her friends now out of uniform.

"And they tell me now had this been available to them," she says, "they would have stayed in the service."

The intermission program is just one of a number of Pentagon efforts to help families, an effort that started with a strong push from the White House. The Obama administration has pushed across the board for policies that are not only family-friendly but also give a boost to the careers of women, from promotion to top ranks to opening up all combat jobs to females.

Maternity Leave

And the military now offers 12 weeks of paid maternity leave – a number that exceeds many of the best family-friendly private employers.

Another perk: The Pentagon plans to increase the time military daycare centers operate, from 12 hours a day to 14. (Some parents complain those additional hours – announced in January — have not yet materialized.)

All this, Carter says, is meant to keep everyone on board.

"When you recruit a service member, you retain a family," he said in June.

Still another program for work-life balance came from Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official who's also a mother. She served as undersecretary for policy under Obama's first Pentagon chief, Robert Gates. She had young children at home and worked out a flexible schedule with Gates so she could spend more time with them.

Gates told her, she recalls, that when he worked at the White House during the administration of George H.W. Bush and had young kids at home, he asked for the same flexibility from National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

So, armed with a flexible schedule, Flournoy tried to offer the same to her staff.

"We found that the thing people wanted more than anything else was predictable time off," she says. "If they could just count on time in the morning when taking a kid to school or a few evenings a week when they could get off at a reasonable hour or a two-hour block every couple of weeks to take a parent to a doctor's appointment, it was predictable time off."

Some skeptics, she remembers, said it was impossible in a place like the Pentagon. Crises always pop up. Officials have to be at their desks, not taking time off to drive a kid to school. She got this reaction when she brought up the idea at a Pentagon town hall meeting.

"They actually laughed at me," she says.

But in the end, the flexible schedule was put in place. The work was done by teams, so one player could easily take time off. The work got done and Gates was happy with the results.

And that flexible schedule? It's still going strong in the Pentagon policy shop.

Flournoy has since left the Pentagon. But should Hillary Clinton capture the White House, many consider her a strong chance to become the first woman defense secretary.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Working parents in the U.S. do not have it easy. They're pulled in a lot of different directions, as we're hearing in the series we call Stretched.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's about the busiest I've ever been.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: When I was in labor, I was responding to emails and receiving calls for work.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Does my life feel sustainable - no.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You're rushing to get home for your child care. You're not sleeping well. You're probably not eating well.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Even just pumping one time at work makes getting through the day a lot more challenging.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: In a way it feels like I'm kind of set up to fail.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I feel like I have three full-time jobs (laughter), yes.

CORNISH: Now all workplaces have their own stressors, but one that seems especially incompatible with work-life balance is the U.S. military. In fact the military was losing a lot of talented service members for that very reason - parents who felt they couldn't successfully serve their country and raise their children at the same time.

But here's the problem. The military has poured a lot of time and money into training these people, so the top brass, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, figured something needed to change for retention and recruitment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASH CARTER: What we do to demonstrate that we're a family-friendly force to those we want to recruit is absolutely essential to our future strength.

CORNISH: The U.S. military is now experimenting with a number of programs to keep talented moms and dads in the force as NPR's Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The military's fame is for working long hours not only in overseas deployments but at home base, too. It's almost a badge of honor. So balancing work and family can be a particular challenge. Take Air Force Major Johanna Ream. She's working a high-powered, top secret job. Her husband's an Air Force pilot, and they're the parents of an infant named Jack. And then this happened.

MAJOR JOHANNA REAM: I was pregnant with my second child, and I was tired (laughter) working full-time, having an 8-month-old. I was like, you know, I could really use a break.

BOWMAN: And she did get a break through a relatively new effort called the Career Intermission Program. It allows service members to take one to three years off. They keep health benefits and take home a small percentage of their monthly basic pay. The career clock is on hold while they're on break. On return, they compete for promotions alongside colleagues with the same amount of active duty experience.

Major Ream wanted to take a year off to care for Jack and her new baby, Mary, saying she considered it an extended maternity leave.

REAM: I love my career. I love what I'm doing. I just needed a short break.

BOWMAN: Now scores of military personnel like Major Ream are taking time off to study, travel or, more often than not, raise kids, and many of them are mothers. The drafters of the Career Intermission Program may have anticipated that given the attrition the military has been seeing. Listen to what Defense Secretary Carter said back in June.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: We know that at 10 years of service when women are at their peak years for starting a family, women are retained at a rate 30 percent lower than men across the services.

BOWMAN: Major Ream says these programs come too late for some of her friends now out of uniform.

REAM: And they tell me now if this had been available for them, they would have stayed in the service.

BOWMAN: That intermission program is just one of a number of Pentagon efforts to help families. The military now offers 12 weeks paid maternity leave, a number that exceeds many of the best family-friendly private employers. Another perk - the Pentagon plans to increase the time military daycare centers operate from 12 to 14 hours a day. All this, Secretary Carter says, is meant to keep everyone on board.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: While you recruit a service member, you retain a family.

BOWMAN: And still another program for work-life balance came from a senior Pentagon official who's also a mother, Michele Flournoy. She served as undersecretary for policy under Obama's first Pentagon chief, Robert Gates. She had young children at home and worked out a flexible schedule with Gates so she could spend time with them. Then she tried to work out some type of work-life balance for her staff.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: We found that the thing that people wanted more than anything else was predictable time off. If they could just count on either time in the morning when they knew they could take their kid to school or a few evenings a week where they knew they could get off at a reasonable hour or, you know, a two-hour block every couple of weeks to take their parent to a doctor's appointment, it was predictable time off.

BOWMAN: Some skeptics said it was impossible in a place like the Pentagon. Crises always pop up. You have to be there. She got this reaction at a town hall meeting.

FLOURNOY: They actually laughed at me.

BOWMAN: But in the end, the flexible schedule was put in place. The work got done. Secretary Gates was happy. And that flexible schedule - it's still going strong in the Pentagon policy shop. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

CORNISH: The military's effort to attract and retain parents - that's something Tova Walsh has thought a lot about. She's a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and she studies the experiences of mothers serving in the armed forces. The way she sees it, this is bigger than just accommodating families.

TOVA WALSH: This is not a women's issue. This is a manpower issue. This is a matter of, you know, retaining the best talent that we have and not losing wonderful people because our system isn't set up to support them.

CORNISH: And it's not just about the current force. It's about the future one.

WALSH: When we think about, you know, people who are being recruited, women in particular who are thinking about motherhood but also anyone who anticipates having a family, if we can remove the roadblock of thinking that it's not possible to balance military life and family life, then we have the opportunity to recruit the best of the best as opposed to limiting the pool that we're recruiting from to those who are, you know, wonderfully talented and also are not thinking about starting a family.

CORNISH: She's talked with a lot of service members and says those in the higher ranks - officers - tend to be more positive about the changes the military's made. Those who are enlisted - they're still struggling.

WALSH: In particular for women who are National Guard and Reserve and who deploy from and come home to, you know, community settings and not to military installations. It can be harder to access supports and services if they, you know, are dispersed geographically.

CORNISH: Walsh says the programs do have shortcomings, but they're a good start. If the push to retain mothers in the armed forces is successful and these women rise to leadership positions, Walsh anticipates they'll be mindful about how their decisions affect families.

WALSH: I spoke with a lot of women who are just, you know, really remarkable, who have had remarkable careers, who are insightful and very, very competent at their jobs and who either are already strong leaders or who have the potential to be and, you know, grow into strong leadership roles. And I think that retaining these women will make a huge difference to our military.

CORNISH: As Walsh sees it, when it comes to addressing the needs of working parents, the military is in many ways out front, and they have the potential to influence civilian society.

WALSH: These are really universal challenges, and that when the military leads the way on this and when women in the military have the chance to, you know, figure out ways of making this work, I think they can offer insights to all of us who are trying to figure out work-life balance. And there are a lot of you wrestling with that as we're hearing in our series Stretched.

Tomorrow we explore the key component for working parents - child care. It's expensive and, in many parts of the country, extremely hard to find. Here's what we heard from Katie Fokin (ph) in Minneapolis, Minn. She's a chiropractor. She runs her own pain management clinic along with her husband. And they're parents to a 1-year-old son Henry (ph). When she was looking for child care, Fokin says she was overwhelmed and disheartened.

KATIE FOKIN: I left messages at 37 places. Three called me back, two to tell me that they had no openings and one to tell me that they did have an opening, but I would have to come over today to look at it and decide if I wanted it.

I went and looked at it that day, and it was a situation that I was just not comfortable with. There were so many kids that she didn't have control over. I left crying. I called my husband and said, I don't know how I can do this. I can't possibly leave him.

CORNISH: Fokin's father ended up driving an hour and a half each way a couple days a week to watch Henry. An aunt filled and when she could. At one point Fokin's housecleaner had to stay with Henry.

Eventually an opening came up at a church daycare that Katie Fokin felt good about, but the interim was a huge ordeal, an ordeal working parents have dealt with for a long time. We'll talk about that tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.