Brooke Jones-Chinetti never had any intention of leaving the military. After graduating from West Point, she served in the Army for six years and completed two deployments to the Middle East. During her service, she was selected for a premier pilot program called Women in Combat Arms, and then she was hand-selected to lead human resources for an organization of 4,500 people. “I loved it,” she says. “I didn’t think that I was going to get out.”
But life—or, more specifically, corporate America—had other ideas. Jones-Chinetti met her husband in the Army, but after growing up as an Army brat, he was ready for stability. Jones-Chinetti would have been able to stay on her career track in the military if he had been able to start a career track of his own, but he couldn’t find any full-time jobs flexible enough to allow for a relocation every two or three years. Thus, Jones-Chinetti had to find new work.
Luckily, this story doesn’t have an unhappy ending. Jones-Chinetti fell into a network of incredible women and found a new career path. These days, she’s not just Werk’s Director of Operations; she’s also a case study for military spouses’ need for flexibility. Here’s our conversation.
Werk: Tell us about your situation and how you needed flexibility.
Brooke Jones-Chinetti: With my situation, my husband was going to be the military spouse, and it forced my hand to get out of the military. Typically, the shoe’s on the other foot. Typically, the military spouse—just by the demographics of the Army—is a woman. And these women typically move around the country every two to three years based on when their partner is being reassigned somewhere else. And usually, they’re going to towns where the economy is not super built out and supportive of people having progressive, full-time jobs.
And what’s so unfortunate is that a lot of these women—49 percent of whom have college or graduate degrees—are usually eliminated from the workforce because they can’t find jobs that are flexible or that allow them to work full-time while anticipating that they’re going to have to move in a couple years.
So it knocks an unbelievably smart and diverse and educated sliver of society out of the workforce. And so not only is that detrimental to the economy and to families in general, but also to the military, because then you have situations like mine. We’re at a point in America where you need a dual-income household in order to be competitive at all in the middle class. And we’re also at a point where in many families, both partners want to pursue careers. But if the partners of our military service members can’t work due to lack of access to flexibility, it’s not fair—and it’s absolutely ludicrous to me.
In a 2017 Blue Star Families study, 55 percent of employed military spouses reported feeling underemployed because they’re forced to settle for jobs that are not making the most of their skill set. It seems like even when military spouses can find work after a relocation, it’s probably, if anything, a lateral move, and then it’s hard to achieve any career momentum.
Exactly, and they’re lucky if they get a lateral move. Out of the folks who have graduate degrees, 70 percent have faced unemployment during their marriage to a military service person. It’s an incredibly high number, especially for folks who have graduate and post-graduate schooling. And 67 percent had to quit or change a job.
What’s happening is that people are just trying to make it work, and so they’re forced to “opt down” into lower paying, less challenging roles, which are typically gigs. While gigs provide the flexibility they need, they lack stability, steady income, and don’t provide much opportunity for advancement. So structured flexibility, specifically the ability to work remotely, is something that is incredibly important to, again, predominantly women, just based on demographics.
Have you heard of instances of employers or hiring managers showing bias against military spouses?
I absolutely have heard stories—because there’s two things that come up. One, I’ve heard that hiring managers, when they’re looking at resumes, they see these gaps. It’s not just military spouses, this is also moms who might have taken off time to be at home with their kids. They see these gaps on their resume, and they automatically disqualify them, which is again something that we need to retrain our hiring managers on: how to look at modern resumes.
Also, some employers, if they know that they’re going to lose this individual in a couple years, they’d rather go with somebody who might appear more stable. In fact, 41 percent of military spouses report that one of the biggest challenges that they saw was that a company didn’t want to hire a military spouse because they may move. And that spotlights the biased way spouses are perceived in the workplace, and how far companies have to go in terms of embracing flexibility.
Have you ever heard of any instances of employers trying to propose alternative solutions instead of flexibility—like, say, suggesting the military service member and spouse go long-distance?
I know somebody who has commuted four hours a day. She felt lucky because she felt like her employer accommodated her by allowing her to move to the city closest to her military base, but she was still commuting two hours one way. So she was commuting four hours a day for a job to just try and maintain a career.
So while they’re trying to accommodate, companies are still not accommodating truly flexible arrangements. This topic is very much becoming a hot-topic issue in the veteran space, as well as among large companies that have established military recruiting programs. They’re looking for options, but it seems like no one can crack the code on how to support them.
I think flexibility and what we’re doing here at Werk is really the key. Companies need to change how they see remote work. We say this all the time at Werk, but technology has advanced so much that it’s changed how we work, but our workday hasn’t changed and the structure hasn’t changed—when it really can and it really needs to. So I think we’ve only scratched the surface on what we can do for military spouses.
Do you think the situation is getting any better for military spouses, with remote work becoming more and more acceptable in the business world?
I don’t think it’s getting better—yet. I think it’s important that it’s being talked about often, but I think companies need to be open and amenable to creative solutions that support their employees, whether they are military spouses who are forced to be in these unique situations or if it’s just their average employees who might need to be flexible.
But I think it’s important that this topic of increased challenges for careers for military spouses is being discussed. I think it’s crucial because a lot of women—and like I said, it’s typically women—are being forced out of the economy for really no reason. They’re capable, they’re smart, they’re entrepreneurial, and dang, do they know how to manage everything from multiple moves to balancing careers and families at home. I’ve never seen a more diverse and successful group of women, and to see them have to struggle like this is pretty hard.
Women are the often the focal point of the flexibility conversation because oftentimes they are the caregivers in the family, and they need flexibility to really make their work and their life compatible. And so to have the redeployment and multiple moves as another layer makes it seem even more imperative to really institute flexibility in the workforce.
Absolutely. As a woman who was a service member, had there been flexible choices in the workforce for my husband, I would still be in the Army. The Army lost me because of corporate America’s lack of flexibility for my spouse. It hindered me as a woman who wasn’t even looking for flexible work. It hindered me because I’m in a partnership where I value my spouse’s career, where I want him to have a successful, progressive trajectory. And in order to do that, one person’s role has to be flexible—at least—to be able to adapt to how everything is structured now in corporate America.
It seems like a lose-lose—because corporate America loses a valuable worker, and the military loses a valuable service member. Without flexibility, something’s gotta give.
Exactly. A vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a president of Hiring Our Heroes said this is a national security issue. Because if we’re losing service members—talented, capable service members—because their partners don’t have access to meaningful work, we’re going to continue to bleed talent in the military, and that’s going to be a problem.
Without prying too much, could we ask you about emotions you felt as you contemplated a complete career change with your hand forced?
I’m happy to talk about it! I didn’t know what I wanted to quote-unquote be when I grew up because I hadn’t thought about it. I thought I was going to stay in the Army. I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I felt like I was grasping at straws to find a network to assist me in this transition.
I wanted to go to a strong company with great brand recognition, where I could learn the tools of the trade for whatever industry I was going to end up in. And I gotta tell you, I hated my first job so much. I felt so underutilized, so undervalued. It wasn’t the company’s fault - it was just where I was at in my career. And I was furious with my husband. And bless his heart, I was so mad at him because I was like, I cannot believe I left the military, where I was fulfilled in my career, where I knew what my path was and where I was headed to having to figure it out all over it again and being deeply dissatisfied with my new job.
But I got lucky. I fell into a network of incredible women here in Manhattan who uplifted me and who saw where my talents lay and saw what I was worth and what I was doing and how my skill set from the military was exceptionally valuable to corporate America. And actually, that same network is where I met Annie [Dean, co-founder of Werk]. Lo and behold, here I am. I feel completely at peace with my decision to leave the military now, but it took me some time to figure out what I wanted to do because I hadn’t planned that I was going to get out of the military.
It’s awesome, first of all, that you gave years of your life to the military and gave service to your country. But also, once you had to make this transition, you found a job with a company that is envisioning a future where women wouldn’t have to make these decisions because flexibility would be such a commonplace thing.
Exactly. At the end of the day, the one common denominator throughout my career—both military and professional—was justice, was lifting up others, was making sure that whatever was left of that glass ceiling was shattered. And that has always been important to me. And I think at the end of the day, this company is 1,000 percent supporting the economic empowerment of women, by providing them access to incredibly strong jobs that turn into careers. And I think that’s how we really change things: by making sure that women have economic power. It’s crucial. And Werk is doing it, and I’m so happy to be here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.