Saturday, June 08, 2013

The EFM Work Situation: Post Two

The following are two different views on what it's like to be an Eligible Family Member (EFM) with experience in two posts and one extended FSI training stint. I've edited my husband's words only a teenie bit, but I wanted to present them semi-raw so you all could hear his voice, instead of translated through my thoughts. For more views on the subject, look to the list on the lower right for other EFM blogs. 

She says:
One of the most challenging parts of a life in the Foreign Service is considering what the lives of your children/spouse/partner/pets will be like. My husband and I came into this new chapter of our lives each 100% on board with the idea of living abroad and moving every two to three years. It has been something we've always wanted, so there was no convincing or pleading with him i.e. "Guess what honey, I just joined the Foreign Service and that means that you'll be moving to..."  

However, even given this nicely-set stage, the road has been far more difficult for him, and therefore us, than expected. It started with a five-month separation as I trained to be an OMS in Washington before Post #1. His eventual arrival was followed by six months of frustrating unemployment as he applied for every job he qualified for at the Embassy, to no avail. (If you'd like, you can read about this time in my first posting on the subject here, and the second posting here.) As an experienced high school teacher, he was able to tutor American children from the Embassy community after school, which was good work, but certainly not full time. Finally, with a one-month intensive training program under his belt, he found work teaching English to executives in Bogota. He had steady work, although again not full time, a sense of an independent life with new friends outside of our Embassy community, and he got to know more about Colombian life from his students. Well paying? Not really, but that wasn't the point. Unfortunately, he was just settling into his routine when we got the call to return to FSI for my A-100 course. 

During the six months I was at FSI, he was able to take the basic Consular course ("ConGen") for six weeks, plus a Mexican border area studies course for one week and a smattering of day-long family-member classes. He decided not to pursue the offer of a long-time substitute teacher position at the local school district in exchange for the potential long-term benefits of having the ConGen credential, which is good for five years. 

We've now been in Juarez for four months, and I'm very happy to report that he has found work at the Consulate after three months of frustrating and seemingly senseless bureaucracy. Three months may sound like a short time to wait for a good, full-time job, but please don't forget that he hadn't been working since we left Bogota last July. So really the waiting was ten months and was further compounded by the still-fresh memory of what the seven months of applying, interviewing, waiting, waiting some more, and finally being disappointed felt like. Yes, his gamble of turning down the paying work in Virginia paid off in that he is capitalizing on the ConGen investment now, but that was truly a gamble. His job within the Consular section is interesting, he's learning things he never knew before and will soon be cashing a regular paycheck. Our sections are far enough apart that we don't bump into each other at work all day, and he's learning things I don't know about, which can make for more interesting dinner conversation. 

In looking ahead to Post #3, which I'm always doing even though we're only 12.5% of the way through this current tour, he's already saying that he doesn't know if he can stomach another six plus months at FSI without work. Learning a new language will take at least that long, so either we stick with English or Spanish-speaking posts, therefore really limiting our horizons, or I risk the negative effects of a severely bored and under-utilized spouse pacing an Oakwood apartment for months on end (something the cats are voting for - they like the company). And what if our next post requires learning a one-country language, like Greek, or Azeri, or Finnish? With few sections offered for these "boutique" languages, spouses often have a hard time getting a space-available-basis seat in class and therefore have to head to post with zero or little language ability to their new country. Or, if he were to be offered language training, he'd have weigh being employed temporarily in Virginia (if possible) with the benefits of being able to speak whichever language. 

In any compromise such as this, there are going to be things that turn out less-than-ideal, and people who have to sacrifice. Having a family means making sure that the sacrifice isn't always on their side. My day dreams of serving one post in each of our bureaus and living in wintry lands, deserty lands, tropical islands, bustling metropolises and places that nobody has heard of - all in my Consular cone - will probably not come to fruition. That's just part of the package of having a family in the Foreign Service. 

One of my coworkers, whose wife lives in the US and continues her career while he serves in Mexico, told me that once he gets his next bid list, he plans to cross off all the posts where the timing won't work for his transfer schedule and then send the list to her to pick her favorites. I think he's onto something in making that plan, and offering the proverbial "trailing spouse" some of control over this life is a wise choice. 

We're hoping that the warnings of our more-experienced FS friends are true: that the first posts are the hardest for spouses as they try to gain work experience and training that will grease the wheels for further jobs. We look forward to having two paychecks again, and for him to feel more of an equal part of this equation. 

My recommendation to anyone still on the outside and considering coming in is to please consider all these things before thinking about dragging a perfectly nice spouse/partner/family off into this life, as it really only gets more, not less, complicated. Complicated does not necessarily mean "worse," just not as straightforward and simple as perhaps your life now/previous life. I'm confident that in the end, when the day-to-day frustrations and gripes have faded, like the memories of how much you love eating hot dogs and then riding the county fair roller coaster, we'll say it was all worth it. Then we'll drag out another photo album and bore you with more stories of places and faces all over the world...

He says:
I would add that while you (the FSO) arrive at a new post and start working on day one, it seems typical that a spouse, even if there is a job opening just fortuitously waiting for them, still has to spend the weeks or months applying, interviewing, and waiting for the local HR to give them the go-ahead.  

I would also say that the lucky spouses have something truly independent and/or telework related. We have friends whose spouses are continuing their work editing magazines, translating documents, and selling high-end bicycle parts. And I often reflect even now on how I would probably be enjoying the roving-around lifestyle more if I felt more connected to the local culture, e.g. working on the local economy, which is actively, if not passively, discouraged and discouraging.  And how (even though you don't tolerate me saying) that as an EFM you are never really "in the club" among the consulate/embassy FSOs and the whole FS culture.  Hence the popularity of our lunchtime "bored meetings" with the other unemployed EF-Men while you all were at work. The Family Liaison Office and Community Liaison Office (CLO) and everyone tries to help as they can and be hail-fellow-well-met, but when the rubber meets the road, EFMs are looked over.  I think that's a holdover from the Julia Child days of planning cocktail parties for the husbands and important guests.

I think it's good for EFMs to have a long list of "well, I could...."
I could teach English: few jobs at low pay
OK, I could volunteer at local charities and missions: but not in the city's danger zones - you know, where most the charities are.
OK, I could take the separate maintenance allowance and live and work in El Paso: why even be in the FS?
OK, I can just keep house and explore: and go broke and clinically depressed
OK, I can just focus on raising the kids....oh wait, ours are already in college.

I'm happy to have the job because I need the money and mental distraction, but I can't say I'm overjoyed at getting secretary-butt doing 40 hours a week of data-entry. It bugs me to think I am losing what little Spanish I had, and looking at the prospect of learning about my surroundings only through happy hours and CLO events.  Waah-waah--I guess what I'm saying is that it really takes an effort, not just for EFMs but for all, to work at reaching out and making some memories outside the consulate and knowing people besides the other Americans.

Bottom line is that it's easier with lowered expectations, putting pride and careers aside, and just doing whatever, wherever.  Another bottom line is that it seems that 8 out of 10 EFMs have hard-luck stories, but that they are all very different hard luck stories.  It's different for everyone depending on their background, their expectations, their character, and then how lucky they get.

What kind of hors d'oeuvres would you like for your friends tonight, honey?


  1. Thanks so much for this post! This remains the #1 thing I fret over. I am a prospective OMS (awaiting security clearance). My husband is 3 years away form military retirement and he is not on board with me joining the FS (well, he says he is but I know him better--he is not). But what do you do when you have two people who each desire and are qualified for highly "non-traditional" jobs?!

    I gave up my own military career to support him in his and stay home to raise our son. I don't mind it, but I've been alone for most of it as he jaunts off on mission after mission all over the world. Yeah, it's not really glamorous but I can't help but always feel like the "left behind wife." With his retirement looming I finally felt like it was MY TURN to pursue what I had set out to do in life. But as I've sat on the sidelines and sacrificed, the OMS gig will mean him doing the same. And I feel so guilty for that.

    He is highly capable and qualified to join the FS himself...but tandems create their own set of logistical nightmares. It pains me (and even pisses me off to be honest) how terrible the EFM hiring situation is at so many posts. Just awful.

    But I guess in the end I feel like I can't give up on this before I have even started. I want to see this through and I can only hope that my husband will find his way on this new adventure and hopefully some gainful employment to boot! He jokes that he will make an excellent stay at home dad to our 5 year old--and he would--but that would get old quick.

    Thanks again for your insight! I wish it were a better situation all around.

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, this is what my intention was in sharing our experience. Your family situation has three things that ours does not: 1) Veteran's bonus points means that your husband will be interviewed for any job he applies before anyone else w/out these points. Unless he is utterly unqualified - he has a very good shot at the job. 2) At three years from retirement, you could aim hard for a job in a border post or in DC to kill some time and let him retire before moving farther afield. With his retirement, he would not feel as much of the financial burden that someone who is simply unemployed does. 3)You two have a young child and that's the best reason to stay home. My husband was great with our cats, and they loved it, but you can only open and close the outside door so many times...
    Go for it, see where the wind blows and good luck!

  3. bring up some good points! I didn't know about veteran's points for EFMs. I get that it's a really crappy situation that it's that way in regards to non-vets but I guess since he'll have it he might as well use it to his advantage. I am also a disabled vet so those bonus points really helped push me to the very top tier of OMS scores. I had actually considered the geographical considerations for my first post. My first bid list was likely going to be ordered by cost and ease of flights so that any time he's not deployed he can easily get to us and visit :) I really admire you and your hubby--I'm sure it isn't easy but you guys seem to have figured out how to make it work the best you can. Although this job comes with some hardships, it actually means more time together as a family for us and that right there is paramount for me.

  4. Yay for Mr. Tim!!!! I am so happy to hear all of his FSI time paid off. :)

  5. I just want to throw it out there that while being a tandem definitely has challenges (I have a bidding headache and the season doesn't even start until August), having been an EFM, I definitely prefer tandem. the short-term bidding headaches even out to longer-term gainful employment for both of us. This also means retirement pensions for both of us in addition to two decent paychecks now. It also means we have interesting dinner table conversations since we are in separate sections, plus we get lunch together most days (bonus!).

  6. As an EFM following his spouse into the third tour, I can relate to all of this. Thanks for the post - I stumbled across it today researching a topic for a paper I am writing about LES and EFM HR practices at U.S. Embassies. I'm at a place where I can legally work, but the search is basically as the same as the waiting game for EFM jobs. Hard work, but hopefully it would pay off. I'd consider being a tandem but the idea of starting over again at the bottom of the career ladder seems almost worse than not working. However, it'd be a career path whereas right now I don't have much of one. Hope springs eternal, however.