WASHINGTON – When her husband's Air Force job took him to Colorado, Vydia Torres became a cashier just so she could join him even though her resume included stints as Puerto Rico's housing secretary and the head of a nonprofit group.
"I did not have the network. I did not know the labor market," Torres says of her move in 1993. Military spouses face similar career dilemmas, she said, because they relocate so much.
Today, Torres heads a Colorado Springs, Colo., program — also in place in a half-dozen communities nationwide — that helps military spouses with job training, placement, tuition and child care.
Despite its popularity, the initiative is in jeopardy because government officials do not intend to renew its federal grant.
"We've been turning people away," said Leland Lewis, who manages the program in the Norfolk, Va., area. "There's a letdown" when potential applicants learn they no longer can sign up, he said.
Mason Bishop, the Labor Department's deputy assistant secretary for employment and training, said Friday the department has told program administrators the grant money no longer will be available because it comes from a pool of money meant for emergencies.
Bishop said his agency sends billions of dollars annually to states to help workers find jobs and learn new skills. He said some of this money could pay for the program for military spouses. "I absolutely believe these projects can continue on indefinitely," Bishop said.
The program grew from effort in the late 1990s to provide job training for people in the military. Since 2001, the department estimates it has spent about $90 million for military spouses through the National Emergency Grant program, Bishop said.
These grants, he said, are intended to assist with one-time events such as plant closings or natural disasters. "We have to be prudent in administration of these monies," Bishop said.
Stephanie Youngblood recently went through the program in Tennessee, where administrators will not accept new applicants.
"The program as a whole is awesome, is really great," said Youngblood, who recently got a job as an assistant special education teacher. "It's terrible that spouses are going to lose out on that."
Youngblood's husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class John Youngblood, is stationed at Fort Campbell but now is in Iraq. Stephanie Youngblood said spouses faced with the deployment of their loved ones have a great need for the program.
"We have to be prepared for the possibility that, you know, they might not come back, and we might, you know, have to survive on our own income, with our own skills," Youngblood said.
Mary Sabillo, who helps run the program in San Diego, says the initiative is viewed "almost like a GI bill for spouses."
Sabillo says the program has served as a retention tool for the military.
"If the spouses could gain employment and provide more dollars into the family income, it was more likely the military spouse would stay in the military," Sabillo said.
Susan Kamas, who helps administer the program near Fort Hood, Texas, says Labor Department officials told her group "they have different priorities for their money."
But Kamas said people who leave jobs because of a spouse's military career should be viewed similarly to other workers who leave involuntarily. "They really didn't have any choice about leaving their employment if they wanted to be with their family," Kamas said.
In the Fort Hood area, the program recently helped train military spouses to work from home as Dell Computer customer service representatives. Kamas says it is a skill, and maybe a job, spouses can take with them when they move.
The issue has attracted attention from lawmakers who represent communities with the program. They say they will try to ensure the program continues.
"What we have seen is the ability of thousands, thousands of Americans to be working to develop skills to move into the job market," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican.
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, says the program is vital for local economies because military spouses often go home to extended families when their husband or wife is deployed.
"If all those spouses went home every time, it would be an economic disaster," he said. "If they don't have jobs, they're liable to go home."