FS family members and posts feel the impact of not being able to fill many essential positions.
BY DEBRA BLOME
With all that is going on today in the world of diplomacy and the Foreign Service, it may not seem like the right time to look at how the continued hiring freeze is affecting family member employment. Family members, after all, were never guaranteed jobs to begin with, as some of the less sympathetic comments on social media have pointed out.
But the reality is that there are many excellent reasons for the State Department to employ Foreign Service family members. As the FSJ pointed out in “Out in the Cold: How the Hiring Freeze Is Affecting Family Member Employment” (July-August 2017), hiring eligible family members (EFMs) is not just good for morale. It makes financial sense, as family members fill key jobs that keep embassies and consulates functioning at very low cost to the State Department.
The executive branch civilian hiring freeze (which included EFM jobs) announced in the Presidential Memorandum of Jan. 23, 2017, is still in place for EFM positions (and the State Department), even though it was lifted months ago for most other agencies. Hundreds of waivers have been granted, but the blanket freeze remains in place as of this writing.
At his Dec. 12 town hall meeting on the “redesign,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised to “end the hiring freeze [for EFMs] in 2018 and return the authority to bureaus and posts to make decisions on what they need for eligible family members.” At the same town hall, Secretary Tillerson also said he would “expand the opportunities by expanding the use of the EPAP [Expanded Professional Associates Program],” saying that “this is a talent pool that we should be using.”
Secretary Tillerson promised to end the hiring freeze for EFMs in 2018 and return the authority to bureaus and posts to make decisions on what they need.
As of mid-February, the latest update to the Family Liaison Office hiring freeze information web page, on Dec. 29, 2017, notes only the town hall announcements of the end to the EFM hiring freeze and promises to share guidance as it is released.
Soon after the town hall meeting, we were told by several sources that bureaus were given the authority to manage EFM positions and were authorized to fill up to 50 percent of their bureau-wide EFM vacancies, with the bureaus deciding which posts would fill which EFM jobs. (For example, some bureaus may decide to fill all of the EFM slots at one post and none at another.) However, at this writing no announcement has been made about when, or if, the bureaus will be able to fill the remaining 50 percent of EFM jobs.
There has been recent movement on the Secretary’s town hall promise of expanding EPAP. As of Jan. 17 the FLO webpage on the program displays guidance on how to prepare for the 2018 spring/summer EPAP vacancy announcement, and includes a “checklist” for preparing documents, as well as a table outlining the new job qualification standards.
The checklist notes that, because of the new qualification standards, all previously qualified—and even working—professional associates will have to requalify for all future EPAP positions and go through the entire application process again. The new standards are more rigid and some are impractically high (a Ph.D. in business is required for an EPAP position in financial management with the rank of FP-3, for example). In the flurry of comments on social media after these guidelines were announced, many questioned the reason for these changes to a program that, though too small to make a big difference in the EFM employment pool, seemed to be working.
In the meantime, while Foreign Service family members wait for at least half of the possible mission jobs to open up, how are they coping?
For the most part, spouses and partners of Foreign Service members are a resilient bunch. They follow their employee partners to far-flung posts where, for a variety of reasons (lack of bilateral work agreements, language or security barriers, and low local wages, to name a few), it’s not always possible to find employment on the local economy. For those who want to work, employment inside the mission is often the most appealing—and sometimes the only—option.
However, there have never been nearly enough jobs to go around. The most recently available report on family member employment, released by the State Department’s Family Liaison Office in April 2017, shows that while there were 12,064 adult family members stationed overseas, there were only 3,374 inside-the-mission positions open to EFMs. Granted, not all 12,000 EFMs are looking for work; still, there are far more EFMs than mission jobs available to them. The hiring freeze isn’t creating a new problem—it is exacerbating an existing one.
For this reason, perhaps, many of the resources created by FLO and available through the Transition Center at the Foreign Service Institute guide family members to consider “portable careers” and entrepreneurship. But becoming your own boss isn’t easy, and doing so while abroad in the Foreign Service, where you can’t use the mail for business purposes and sometimes your own home is even deemed off-limits, is even harder. Also, any employment or outside activity done while at post must be approved by the chief of mission, and the rules vary from post to post, depending upon who is interpreting them. It can be a cumbersome and time-consuming stumbling block, depending on the post and its management, and something a few EFM business owners queried for this article chafed at.
EFMs have taken to social media to share interests, explore ideas, network and lend support using the most valuable resource available to them—each other. Undoubtedly, they were doing this long before the hiring freeze came into effect, but now these connections are even more important.
The number of Facebook and LinkedIn groups devoted to EFMs is hard to pin down because some are closed or secret, and new ones can be created at any time. The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide recently created FSHub, a collection of information useful to the Foreign Service community. FS Hub lists 36 different Facebook and LinkedIn groups under its “Foreign Service Social Media” category—and that doesn’t include post-specific sites, of which there are many.
Since the State Department’s announcement that it would maintain the governmentwide hiring freeze that was lifted on April 12, 2017, AFSA has repeatedly pushed the department at the highest levels to exempt EFMs from the freeze on the grounds that EFM employment is not linked to FTE [full-time equivalent] employment; the EFMs perform vital embassy work and are less expensive to hire than contractors. While exemptions had been carved out incrementally during late 2017, AFSA consistently argued that these were not nearly enough.
We were pleased to hear the Secretary’s announcement at the Dec. 12 town hall that the hiring freeze would be lifted in 2018 for EFMs. We understand that the effective date of the “unfreezing” was Jan. 7. It is AFSA’s hope that hiring will resume quickly to allow our EFM employees to continue the work that is critical to our posts overseas functioning effectively.
The online Foreign Service community can help family members cope with the feeling of isolation they sometimes experience. Employment inside the mission helps EFMs get to know others at the embassy and feel like contributing members at post. “I’ve never felt so disconnected from the embassy community,” said one EFM at a large post in Asia, whose job offer is in limbo because of the freeze. “And that’s saying a lot, considering we live on a compound surrounded by U.S. embassy personnel.”
Another spouse at a different post in Asia compares her experience to her previous posting, where she was the Community Liaison Office coordinator (CLO). “I miss knowing everyone in my community and I have had a harder time feeling connected here,” said this spouse, who, like everyone else quoted in this article, requested anonymity due to sensitivity about the topic.
Social media can provide the sense of community that family members would otherwise have found at work in the mission. There are Facebook groups devoted to EFMs who are business owners, entrepreneurs, yoga instructors, freelance writers and editors, photographers and psychotherapists, to name a few. These groups offer support and a venue to share ideas that can help in the quest to find or create employment.
The EFM Business Owners group alone has more than 700 members. A recent message asking if anyone had started a separate business owners’ group at their post got a flurry of responses. One EFM started a group at post not long after the hiring freeze began, with a few objectives in mind: “cross-pollination,” support, and insight on how to start a business or find work online.
Another started a group that she called “EFMs Creating Careers.” Since the hiring freeze, she wrote, many EFMs have had to reassess their career trajectories and she felt a brainstorming group would be helpful. “We’re sharing resources we’ve found (like this Facebook group), helping each other set goals and stay motivated, and sharing contacts of people we each know in related fields.”
These family members are doing exactly what they should be doing, according to Marcelle Yeager, a Foreign Service spouse and cofounder (with a military spouse) of Serving Talent, an employment agency for Foreign Service and military family members. They are using—on social media or in person—their networks. She reports a particularly high increase in the number of resumés submitted by Foreign Service EFMs to their agency in the past few months.
For some Foreign Service families, the need for full-time, stable employment at an acceptable salary is too great to wait out the freeze any longer. Conversations on the topic of Voluntary Separate Maintenance Allowance garnered far more comments than usual on the enormous Facebook group Trailing Houses, which boasts more than 12,000 members, all of whom are affiliated with the Foreign Service.
VSMA must be applied for and is not guaranteed, though “career” is named as one of the reasons it can be granted. It also does not fully cover the costs of maintaining two separate households (allowance amounts differ depending on family size).
For others, staying at post and making the best of it is the only answer. Most EFMs contacted for this piece are using the forced time off in ways that prove the resilience of the Foreign Service community. “In some ways, this limbo I’m in has been a good impetus to look toward the long term rather than rely on embassy work,” said an EFM at a post in Central America. “My husband plans to do this job until retirement, so I’ve been trying to think of more flexible work that I can take from post to post.”
An EFM in Tokyo is teaching local business people conversational English and has begun giving private photography lessons while he searches for local employment or remote work opportunities. Another EFM, in Mexico, recently launched a travel and vacation planning service.
One EFM in Asia is using the time to gather her thoughts and “dream.” “Everyone wants to feel they are being productive,” she said. “I just want to do something I love or am passionate about. I would love to have a career, and that’s why I am trying to think outside the box. But it is hard.”
Many are using this time to study and retrain. A Virginiabased EFM is getting a degree in teaching English as a second language, while a family member in Jordan is earning an online master’s degree.
Foreign Service life requires spouses to be “incredibly flexible,” said one D.C.-based EFM who is currently retraining for a medical career. “I love moving every few years, but I definitely don’t like the stress of searching for work. So I’m doing something about it!”
There’s no way to predict how long the hiring freeze will be in effect, or how the redesign of the Foreign Service will affect the options for family member employment at overseas posts. EFMs are hoping the Secretary’s plan to lift the other 50 percent of the freeze happens sooner in 2018, rather than later. While they wait it out, Foreign Service family members are proving their resilience and coping as best they can.
Editor’s Note: On Feb. 13, as this issue went to press, a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to take “concrete steps” in the next few weeks to return hiring for EFMs to “normal” levels. The spokesperson said that the Secretary “has authorized an additional 2,449 EFM positions.”
There are many resources for family members seeking employment or education, but it can be hard to locate them. Here are some of the more useful sites.
• FLO Family Member Employment webpage. This page includes the latest updates on the status of the hiring freeze as well as links to FLO information on employment overseas and in the United States, including the Foreign Service Reserve Corps, the Global Employment Initiative, the Expanded Professional Associates Program, and the Professional Development Fellowship program. This should be the first stop for EFMs looking to work or start their own businesses.
• FLO Training, Workshops & Distance Learning webpage. FLO lists options for government-sponsored career and personal training available to certain family members. It includes the Career Development Resource Center, located in Washington, D.C., which offers seminars on employment and career strengthening. It also includes a link to the Transition Center at the Foreign Service Institute training course list, which includes three FSI-based courses available to family members and four webinars on portable careers. Check out the Family Member Training Options section, which includes a link to the Foreign Service Institute and a comprehensive Family Member Training Flowchart. This page also includes information on distance learning opportunities at FSI, language training at post, and functional training for EFMs.
• Portable Careers Webinar Series: Employment Options (MQ707, MQ708, MQ709, MQ710) webpage. In addition to describing each of the webinars on portable careers available to EFMs for free, this page includes links to 28 different internet resources covering topics from “12 Tips for Naming Your Startup” to “Six Tax Tips All Independent Contractors Must Know,” as well as job search platforms and telework sites. It is also a great place to find all the links to the regulations in the Foreign Affairs Manual that outline the rules and restrictions on employment and outside activities.
• FLO Employment Publications and Resources webpage. Many of the links on this page are also located on other FLO pages, but this page efficiently collects all of the links to publications FLO has produced on overseas employment (both inside and outside the mission) and employment when returning to the United States. It also includes links to publications that cover employment options during an evacuation.
• FLO Global Employment Initiative webpage. This page fully explains the GEI program and what they can and cannot do. Currently, 16 Global Employment advisers (GEAs) cover more than 200 posts. Family members overseas should contact their post’s CLO for contact information for their region’s GEA. GEAs run their own Facebook groups and organize webinars and local career development workshops.
• FLO Global Employment Initiative LinkedIn Group (685 members).
• Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) EFM Employment Resources. This page lists job boards and social media groups that are useful to both U.S.-based and overseas EFMs.
• FSHub.org. AAFSW’s FSHub is billed as a “comprehensive gateway to all Foreign Service community support resources.” It contains links to resources on a gamut of topics, from FS-oriented social media and life at post to finances and legal resources. The Employment for Spouses, Partners and Retirees page includes links to career development resources, social media and networking groups, and volunteer opportunities.
• Serving Talent. This is an employment agency created by and designed for military and Foreign Service spouses. They bill themselves as “the first boutique recruiting agency for professional U.S. military and Foreign Service spouses.” Their website is also a great place to find further career development resources, including links to “25 Sites for Finding the Best Remote Jobs” and a link to a FLO-produced document (not found on the FLO website) for the GEI program that lists resources for working remotely. The website’s press section includes short videos and podcasts with career tips.