By remaining open to new challenges, women engineers who are part of military families find their careers can thrive — even through multiple relocations.
By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor
While the spouses of military members are often well educated and highly qualified for a range of careers, they face a 25% unemployment rate and a 25% wage gap compared to their civilian counterparts, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. The issue is such a concern that President Joe Biden signed an executive order on June 9 at Fort Liberty, North Carolina, that — among other things — establishes new training for federal human resources and hiring leaders so they are aware of military families’ needs. The order also enables spouses to seek advice on overseas employment from military legal assistance officers.
“This new executive order establishes the most comprehensive set of administrative actions in our nation’s history to support the economic security of military families, veterans, spouses, caregivers, and survivors,” Biden said during the signing, according to defense.gov.
But military spouses need not sacrifice their careers for their spouses’ careers. Two SWE members who’ve braved the many moves and uncertainties of military family life have defied the odds, proving that with courage, constancy, and commitment, it is possible to maintain and even grow successful careers.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Elysha Wirth
“I learned to be a leader without a management title. I also learned the value of building strong relationships with a team and with customer stakeholders to be successful.”
– Elysha wirth
When Elysha Wirth moved with her husband to accommodate his military career, she parlayed the transfer into a position as a program manager for a defense contractor.
Defying the odds
Elysha Wirth, a program manager for an Orlando, Florida, defense contractor, said she was concerned that she would have to sacrifice pay raises and career advancements because her husband’s career in the military meant frequent family relocations. Instead, she ended up getting a promotion and expanding her career skills.
“If I had had a choice, I probably would have kept doing the same work,” Wirth said. But by changing jobs with her husband’s moves, she said, “I was able to get such valuable experience. Now I’m more confident that I can take on all sorts of challenges or go to another place and know no one or nothing about the teams or the product” and yet be successful, Wirth said.
Wirth met her future husband, Brian Wirth, when both were first-year students studying engineering at the University of Central Florida. Brian joined the U.S. Navy while he was in college, while Elysha worked part time as a systems engineer in a work-study program during her junior and senior years. Elysha gained experience in thermal, vibration, and environmental testing of military aircraft sensors and targeting systems, helped design product requirements, and ensured that products met customers’ expectations.
After they graduated from college in 2013, the couple got engaged. Brian started his military commitment with two years of school, primarily in Charleston, South Carolina. Elysha stayed in Orlando and drove to Charleston every other week, when she had Fridays off. That went on for two years. Brian finished his training, the couple married, and he was stationed at a U.S. Naval base near Seattle.
Elysha had earned a promotion in Orlando, where she worked as a systems engineer, but had to leave immediately afterward to follow her husband. She took on a new role as an electronics engineer with her employer’s Seattle-based division. “I found the role by searching online in my company’s job requisition system,” she said. “When I found the job, I immediately emailed the manager and asked if we could chat about the role. I had a quick chat with him over the phone, then got selected for an interview and eventually got the job.
“Initially I did feel a little guilty that they promoted me and then I left shortly after,” Elysha said. “But since I was open to my management that this move was going to happen eventually, I recognized that they felt that I truly deserved it, whether I was going to stay in the role long term or not. And it also helped that I was staying with the company.”
“I had to be open to learning and growing. I learned how to manage personnel issues and make tough decisions under pressure.”
— Elysha Wirth
And Elysha’s employer matched her promotion when she moved to her new position.
Still, she knew no one at her new location and was the sole engineer on her new work team. For the first time in her career, she found herself working with technicians. She decided to boost the technicians’ engagement by giving each a product to own and in which to become a subject matter expert.
“Every week, we had a lunch and learn, and a technician would present on their topic,” she said. “I was asking myself, ‘How can I make this team better? How can I challenge people?’”
That extra effort helped Elysha discover her talent for leadership.
“I had to be open to learning and growing,” Elysha said. “I learned how to manage personnel issues and make tough decisions under pressure. I saw a need to improve the culture, and joined and eventually led a culture engagement organization. I started a Women’s Impact Network chapter.
“I learned to be a leader without a management title,” she said. “I also learned the value of building strong relationships with a team and with customer stakeholders to be successful.”
Throughout her career, Elysha has been promoted and taken positions that were lateral moves. “But with each change I grew my career,” she said. “About a year after I took the role near Seattle, there was a contract change on the project I was on, and I had a tough decision to make. I could either stay on with the program but change companies, and get a large pay bump, or keep my same level and salary and do a lateral move to another program within my current company.
“I decided to take the lateral move because I knew that I would grow more in that new role,” Elysha said. “I leveraged the network that I had built with others on that program with my culture engagement work. It worked out for the best and I am glad I made that decision, even though it was a difficult decision at the time.
“Even though my career path has not been a straight line, with every change I have made, I have learned new skills and gained new experiences that helped me grow in my career.” In 2018, she and her husband moved back to Orlando, and in April 2023 she took on a program manager role at her company’s Orlando branch. “This fulfilled a career aspiration that I had for a long time and could not have been possible without the multitude of experiences that I had gained in both promoted roles and lateral roles over the past 10 years,” she said.
CREDIT: Courtesy of McKenzie Kramer
“I’m intentional about the fact that I want to have a fulfilling career and intellectual stimulation, become better, and grow as a person. That doesn’t need to diverge with maintaining the happy, healthy marriage that I want.”
– McKenzie Kramer
McKenzie Kramer is transitioning into a software product management role at Tagup Inc., a climate tech startup, which allows her to work remotely.
McKenzie Kramer experienced similar challenges and opportunities as the spouse of a military member. Kramer, chief of staff at Tagup Inc., is now transitioning into a software product management role at the climate tech startup.
McKenzie chose to join her husband, Jarod Kramer, as his career as an officer in the U.S. Navy began, and she found her own career path along the way. She said that at first, she asked herself whether being a “trailing spouse” would be worth it. “I’m intentional about the fact that I want to have a fulfilling career and intellectual stimulation, become better, and grow as a person. That doesn’t need to diverge with maintaining the happy, healthy marriage that I want. I found a way so that my marriage and my career could grow in the same direction.”
McKenzie has been open to change since she switched her major from political science to industrial engineering during her first year at the University of Missouri. She met a group of women who worked as industrial engineers who convinced her that she could gain transferable skills such as analytics, decision-making, and problem-solving with an engineering degree.
McKenzie graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, and she followed Jarod to his first duty station near Seattle, Washington, in 2015, after he completed a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Missouri. McKenzie applied for jobs at a submarine base in the area and at a defense contractor, and was not selected. But she found that that hard work paid off when hiring managers at the contractor with whom she interviewed passed along her resume to a different hiring manager in a company that had an opening. She was asked to interview and was ultimately hired.
After a three-year stint in Washington state, Jarod was assigned to shore duty in Oahu, Hawaii, where he worked at Pearl Harbor. McKenzie got a job as a project scheduler for the U.S. Marine Corps. In this role, she maintained the schedule for more than 100 construction projects as the Marine Corps relocated a military base from Okinawa, Japan, to Guam.
McKenzie learned how to build positive working relationships, collaborate remotely, and communicate effectively to gather critical inputs from numerous parties.
In that role, McKenzie worked closely with stakeholders across countries and time zones. She learned how to build positive working relationships, collaborate remotely, and communicate effectively to gather critical inputs from numerous parties. Those inputs ultimately culminated in an integrated master schedule, which leaders used for strategic planning and management.
After Jarod transferred to a role as an engineering duty officer in 2020, the Navy sent him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. McKenzie then found her current role at Tagup Inc., which develops and deploys a decision-support tool for industrial applications that is driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning. The tool is used to optimize supply, maintenance, and operations.
McKenzie said she learned AI on the job by reading reference materials and by working on various projects. She also leaned heavily on her “awesome” team of engineers, who answered (and continue to answer) her questions, she said.
As a software product manager, she is responsible for gathering the “customer voice” and translating it into product requirements that align with the greater company and product vision. “I certainly feel that I have been moving up,” McKenzie said. “Each role has had increasing responsibility and continues to challenge me every day.”
McKenzie is unafraid to jump into the unknown. “We have always moved to locations where we did not have professional connections,” she said. “I have just leaned on my education, work experience, and positive references from prior managers and co-workers.”
McKenzie is now back in Seattle, a move that has been enabled by Tagup. “I am extremely fortunate to work remotely for a very supportive employer that cheers for me and my husband and supports my growth.”
Wirth and Kramer learned that by keeping an open mind to new opportunities, they could move their careers forward even as their circumstances changed, and they recommend that strategy to others.
“Many times, opportunities come your way but they’re a little unexpected,” Kramer said. “Taking a job that doesn’t completely fit still helps. I [now] have a well-rounded skill set. I’ve done program planning, project scheduling, and project management.”
Wirth said it is worthwhile to be proactive at work — always looking for ways to involve and motivate your team members. Managers notice, offer greater challenges, and see you as someone who can help solve problems. “Go outside of your swim lane,” she said. “Embody the mission. Have a passion. Really try to do your best work.”