Opportunity Found: Chaos Theory for Military Spouse Employment

By Candina Janicki

Unpredictability in Military Spouse Employment

Military spouses face continuous and unpredictable change, which has a direct effect on their ability to find and maintain employment. Being married to someone whose career is dictated by needs of the military means living in a constant state of uncertainty, because the military can decide at any time to deploy a spouse, require service training away from the family, or dictate a move to another installation. Burke and Miller (2018) in their study of the effects of job relocation on spousal careers noted that “job relocations are a common feature of military life, on average occurring every 2-3 years” (p.1261).

In 2017, the unemployment rate for military spouses was 16%, according to a study conducted by Hiring Our Heroes, a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (Hiring our Heroes, 2017). The Council of Economic Advisors (2018) report on military spouses in the labor market notes that this unemployment rate is “twice the rate for the overall U.S. population between 18 and 65” (p. 4). Frequent relocation with short notice is one of several factors that affects military spouse employment, resulting in several significant career changes for military spouses. As the Council of Economic Advisors (2018) states, these relocations are assignments rather than choices and military installations can often be located more than 50 miles from urban centers. The Permanent Change of Station (PCS) moves, as they are called in the military, mean an employed spouse, unless employed with a company that allows for remote work options or can offer a transfer, will be leaving a position and job hunting every 2 to 3 years. The rural aspect of many of these military locations may limit the chances that a company can transfer an individual to another office or even the types of industries and work available to the spouse. In addition, as Burke and Miller (2018) found in their study, a PCS move results in “substantial reductions in spousal earnings” with spouses often continuing to earn “significantly less up to 2 years after a PCS move” and being “4-5 percentage points less likely to have earnings in the first year of the move.” (p. 1262).

Advantages of Chaos Theory of Careers for Aiding Military Spouses

The Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) addresses the realities of a less predictable world and emphasizes complexity, constructiveness, chance, and change (Pryor & Bright, 2011). CTC directly deals with the characteristics that are representative of military spouse employment and considers that career paths are not linear and “CTC expects uncertainty” (Mesaros, 2019, pg.1). According to Bright and Pryor (2014), a strategy for dealing with a changing and uncertain world includes focusing on both convergent and emergent perspectives. The convergent perspective focuses on qualities that, “are shared among many people, such as assessed vocational interests, intelligence quotient, skills and declarative knowledge” (Pryor & Bright, 2011, pg. 141). The emergent perspective includes qualities that factor in meaning, purpose, response to failure, and other qualities that come from “the complex interaction of the many and varied factors that influence career behavior” (Pryor & Bright, 2011, pg. 141). By incorporating elements of CTC, career consultants, facilitators, and counselors can work with military spouse clients to:

  • Gain an understanding of their strengths, values, mission, resiliency, and limitations.
  • Keep an open mind to opportunities, developing and maintaining an open system of thinking, and taking advantage of luck and chance (Pryor & Bright, 2011).
  • Think outside the box and be creative, combining transferable skills to increase options or offering new products/services (Pryor & Bright, 2012). This approach will be useful in dealing with rural locations that do not offer many job opportunities as a way for military spouses to find positions that are outside their normal consideration but still match the skills they bring to the table and allow them to strengthen skills and abilities or find a way to invent their own opportunities.
  • Continually evaluate, seek feedback, review, adapt, and adjust plans as needed to continually stay prepared for the next change in circumstances.
    The CTC approach will aid military spouses in gaining a better understanding of their career patterns, influences that affect their career, and change and their reactions.

Applying the Chaos Theory of Careers

Schlesinger and Daley (2016) published a framework for CTC that includes four phases, referred to as EPSA (Explore, Prepare, Start and Adapt). The EPSA model can be used to assist military spouses in their employment search as it offers a flexible guideline that meets the need for career exploration and decision-making.

Explore- In this phase, the military spouse uses tools such as mind mapping, lifelines, metaphors, and narratives to recognize patterns within his or her career development. Within this phase, the focus is on using assessments and interventions to facilitate deeper discussion and self-discovery. By truly understanding who they are, what skills and abilities they bring to the table, and where they want to contribute, military spouses can gain direction beyond just familiar job titles and become open to other options that may be available. In addition, military spouses can gain insight on factors affecting their career development process (Schlesinger & Daley, 2016).

Prepare- In this phase, the focus is on developing military spouses’ ability to think in open systems. Assisting military spouses with reframing techniques to help them understand the value in failure, the possible benefits to risk, and to recognize opportunities. Tools such as The Reality Checklist, and Luck Readiness Index developed by Bright and Pryor (2011) are beneficial in this phase. Additionally, this phase focuses upon job searching, creating resumes, negotiating salaries, and interview techniques. Military spouses will need aid in learning how to adapt resumes to show transferable skills as they are often looking at switching jobs when an initial job path is unavailable.

Start- In this phase military spouses are actively job searching, engaging in further training or internships, and putting themselves in the “path of opportunity” (Schlesinger & Daley, 2016, p. 91). Spouses should be networking and developing and expanding career knowledge during this phase.

Adapt- In this stage it is important to assist military spouses in understanding the need to be flexible and adaptable within a constantly changing environment. Spouses should consider small term goals that can be adjusted as needed. One suggestion by Schlesinger and Daley (2016) is to introduce narratives from individuals whom clients admire. These narratives would showcase individuals who found success from failure and/or success through small chance events. This would be an opportunity to explore examples of other military spouses who found success through non-linear career paths and similar challenges.

Through Chaos is Opportunity

Applying the Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) framework is an on-going process. Career professionals can provide military spouses with the tools needed to adjust to a constantly changing and unpredictable career path. By assisting these individuals to become open and creative thinkers who consistently monitor and adjust for opportunities, career consultants, facilitators, and counselors can encourage military spouses to develop a growth mindset and adopt a CTC framework.


Bright, J. E. H., & Pryor, R. G. L. (2011). The chaos theory of careers. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48, 163-165.

Bright, J. E. H., & Pryor, R. G. L. (2012). The chaos theory of careers in career education. Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counseling, 28, 10-21.

Burke, J. & Miller, A. R. (2018). The effect of job relocation on spousal careers: Evidence from military change of station moves. Economic Inquiry, 56(2), 1261-1277.

Hiring Our Heroes, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. (2017). Military spouses in the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/sites/default/files/Military%20Spouses%20in%20the%20Workplace.pdf

Mesaros, C. (2019). Embracing chaos theory of careers. National Career Development Association, Career Convergence, Web Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/234994/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false

The Council of Economic Advisors. (2018). Military spouses in the labor market. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Military-Spouses-in-the-Labor-Market.pdf

Pryor, R. G.I ., & Bright, J. E. H. (2011). The chaos theory of careers: A new perspective on working in the twenty-first century (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Pryor, R. G. I., & Bright, J. E. H. (2014). The chaos theory of careers (CTC): Ten years on and only just begun. Australian Journal of Career Development, 71, 375-400.

Schlesinger, J. & Daley, L. P. (2016). Applying the chaos theory of careers as a framework for college career centers. Journal of Employment Counseling, 53(2), 86-96. doi: 10.1002/joec.12030


Candina JanickiCandina Janicki is a Global Career Development Facilitator, Certified Career Services Provider and Certified Professional Resume Writer who aids servicemembers transitioning out of the military to the civilian sector. Candina is a military spouse and volunteers her time to aid other military spouses and veterans through mentorship and career development assistance. Candina has a Master of Business Administration with a focus in Human Resource from the University of Phoenix. She also has a Bachelor of Professional Studies from the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Belton, Texas. Candina can be reached at candinajanicki@outlook.com

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Andrew Harrell   on Friday 11/01/2019 at 08:20 PM

I appreciate your perspective and the resilience of the Military is truly amazing.

Mary Dzmura-Denney   on Saturday 11/02/2019 at 10:26 AM

Thank you for your inspiring article on the plight of military spouses. Active Duty spouses are truly challenged by the frequent transfers and many other issues.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.