The State Department is turning to its computers in hopes of helping the spouses of U.S. diplomats find jobs in American embassies and other overseas offices when they accompany their husbands or wives on foreign assignments.
After a decade of effort, the department's Family Liaison Office, which helps Foreign Service families cope with the unique problems of diplomatic life, has worked out a computerized data bank that will enable U.S. embassies and consulates to match job vacancies with the education, work experience and language skills of the spouses of personnel being assigned to the post.
The aim is to help alleviate the special problems faced by diplomatic families at a time when many Foreign Service wives no longer are content to spend their time in overseas posts doing charity work and when there are increasing numbers of women diplomats with working husbands. Many senior State Department officials fear that the effects on family morale could become a major drawback to recruiting and retaining Foreign Service personnel.
Because of restrictions imposed by language, local laws and customs and traditional restrictions on what diplomatic dependents properly can do, the chances for spouses to find work overseas are few, and frequently the work is not of interest to those who are highly educated. But the department has sought to identify those positions within the typical embassy -- ranging from clerical jobs to specialized functions such as dietitians -- that could be filled by spouses willing to be flexible about their employment chances.
Now the liaison office's new computer system, officially called the Family Members Skills Bank, aims at furthering that process by advising overseas missions in advance of the training and talents of dependents who are to be assigned there so that this information can be considered in the mission's job-staffing plans.
"We are able to do this because of two features," Susan Parsons, director of the liaison office, said. "We are connected to the State Department's main personnel computer so we can find out where people are being assigned. That, in turn, enables us to inform a post before a family gets there that a spouse is coming with certain skills and a desire to work. The post then can use this information to construct a profile of its spouse population and see whether there are skills there that it can use in filling its personnel needs."
The system, as currently designed, covers the following agencies with employees abroad: State, Agency for International Development, U.S. Information Agency, Agriculture Department, Commerce Department and Public Health Service. If an employee is scheduled for an overseas assignment and his or her spouse has put her resume into the data bank, the system automatically will send it to their new post in advance of the couple's arrival.
Parsons said that the total spousal population of what is traditionally regarded as the Foreign Service numbers about 9,000, and she added that so far only about 1,000 spouses have enrolled in the data bank. "So we still have a big selling job to do in terms of getting the word out about the availability of this service and enlisting cooperation," she said.
Part of the problem, she said, is that past efforts to create such a data bank had disappointing results. The earlier efforts, she explained, were aimed at multinational companies in hopes that they would hire U.S. government spouses for their overseas operations. But, Parsons said, "we learned that these companies don't operate that way so the effort went nowhere."
Then, three years ago, a new effort focusing primarily on the opportunities available through the government was started, largely under the direction of Michael Ann Dean, the liaison office's publications coordinator. What originally was estimated as a one-year project stretched into three years as Parsons and Dean tried to fit their limited resources to the problems of soliciting data from spouses, getting cooperation of other agencies, writing a data-processing program that would allow them to tap into the State Department's system and overcoming the restrictions of the Privacy Act and other federal regulations.
However, the system finally has become operational and the first computer-generated telegrams soon will be going to the field about the spouses of officials who will be taking up overseas assignments this summer.
Among those with a special interest in the results will be Parsons. As the wife of a Foreign Service officer, she will be giving up her job at the liaison office shortly to accompany her husband on a new assignment in Paris. But she also wants to keep working and, as one of the very first people to list her credentials in the data bank, she soon will be waiting anxiously to see what opportunities the effort might bring her way.