Should Army Wives Work For Free?

work free

Sometimes the job hunt for military spouses gets so desperate you feel like you ought to be standing at the side of the road with a little sign: Will Work For FREE.

Anything to get out of the apartment. Anything to tell yourself your $50,000 student loan is not paying for an MRS degree. Anything, anything, ANYTHING to break into the local job market after a PCS move.

But should military wives and husbands work for free?

We aren’t talking about Army wives volunteering to help a cause they care about a couple of times a month. We aren’t talking about Marine husbands picking up Thanksgiving donations.  We’re talking about unpaid internships. Pro bono work. Blogging. Free photo shoots. Working with no expectation of getting a check.

Crystal Johnson, a professional photographer who is also an Army wife, wrote about getting ahead in photography for (check out her terrific article here). Crystal told me that she only believes in unpaid work in very, very limited circumstances. Giving your work away trains the consumer to expect photographers to work for next to nothing. That isn’t good business.

I can see that. Then again, I can also see how a little free work can help you break into a new line of work or a new market after a PCS move.

At our Spouse Summit in Washington, DC this year, participants said that the biggest hurdle to breaking in to a new job market was the fact you didn’t know anyone in the local area. So some spouses elected to work for a temp agency (which is paid employment) and then got job offers.

Should you try some strategic volunteering?

Others recommended a little ‘strategic volunteering’ in which you demonstrate how awesome it would be to work with you by volunteering at a school or an on-base service organization or a publication. You do a limited amount of excellent work for free and when an opening comes up then at least they know you.

It ain’t a perfect situation. Crystal points out how there are quite a few unseen costs.  Building connections like that can also take a long time. Sometimes it seems like it is taking forever.

But I can’t deny that strategic volunteering is how I got my clips together when I was learning to write. Our managing editor worked a full-time unpaid internship for months before she found a paying job.

In the interest of full disclosure, most of our bloggers volunteer while they are learning their craft. Yet when we hire or when we hear about job openings and paying gigs, we turn to these volunteers first. We know them. We know their work. Even more basically, we have their contact information.

Are you really making progress?

Still, it is hard to know whether you are getting somewhere while you are doing your strategic volunteering. It is hard to know if someone is taking advantage of you or whether you are making a good tradeoff.

Right now the value of unpaid work is under the scrutiny of the courts. Several lawsuits have been filed by unpaid interns who claim labor laws are being violated by this practice. Although unpaid interns are common in creative fields like filmmaking and journalism, cases have been brought against Fox, Hearst, Conde Nast, and the Charlie Rose Show.

I think the key to free work for military spouses is that you have to focus in two directions to make strategic volunteering work for you. First, you keep your eye on the big picture. Will this free work broaden your reach? Will it build your skill set? Will it lead you closer to paid employment?

Next, you have to keep your eye on the bottom line. Like Crystal said, working for free has a cost. Is what you are investing in time and money yielding anything for you?

Military spouses must figure out how to get around the fact that they have no contacts in the local area when they PCS. I think a little strategic, thoughtful, quality work performed for free can help you overcome that barrier.

What is your experience?  Have you ever done free work that led to a job?



About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at
  • John D

    Are you kidding?? Army wives put up with enough crap. Getting any job any be near impossible. In my family’s 32 year service, My wife was in the army as a SGT, student, cashier, bank teller, sub teacher and finally completed her BA and MAT in teaching and got a DEDOES teaching job. She raised 2 kids while I was away for almost 8 years on non accompanied tours. Also all the field problems, gunnery shoots, NTCs, JRTCs etc.They deserve double pay!! The sacrifices by soldiers are sometimes nothing compared to the wives and families misereres . I was signed in to a unit, got quarters had furniture delivered and w
    then went TDY for 3 months on Saturday!

    • A Smith

      I kind of disagree with the majority on this topic. Serving the military is a little different, just as being a police officer or firefighter is a little different. Its something someone CHOOSES to do. Marrying that service member is something someone also CHOOSES to do.

      My wife and I have only one kid. A lot of that has to do with the economics of raising a kid while on a job that had me gone 75% of a year away from the house. 4 PCS’s in 9 years doesn’t allow for a stable career for a military spouse, but thats something that we were aware of.

      Families need to be more aware of what they are signing up for when they say YES/raise their hand to serve/have that 3rd kid while still active duty. It wont be easy.

  • My wife was able to strategically volunteer and as a result landed a GS position and 15 years later she is a GS11 and getting ready for a promotion to GS 12. It worked out for her. Granted she started out volunteering at our kids’ school in Okinawa and her firs GS position was GS 4….

  • JJH2958

    If you live in a place where jobs are scarce then sure. At least it means you have something to put on your resume and in the future you’ll have something to show a prospective employer.

  • Yvonne Henry

    We were stationed overseas several times and of course wifes were not hired but we could :”volunteer” in the clinics, hospitals etc. Most of the non-military jobs were reserved on base for the locals. I did work in the hospital thru the Red Cross and was the Supervisor of the Red Cross volunteer workers in the Negrito village clinic on Clark AFB, Philippines. If was good experience and led me to later go back to school to be a nurse. Thanks goodness we were stationed in one place long enough to graduate from nursing school. We were never stationed anywhere long enough to really work any where longer than a few years.My husband retired from the USAF after 20 years and it was nice to finally stay somewhere longer than a year or two. Of course you know what you are getting in to when you decide to become associated with the military so it should come as no surprise what is required by this life style.

  • I volunteered at a place that offers autism therapy. I got a job offer the next week. I turned down the job for something else that came available sooner. But I do think volunteering in a field your interested in may lead you to a job.