With 56 communities in 26 states wooing U.S. Space Command, Colorado Springs boosters are focusing on one of the finer points Pentagon leaders will use to judge the competition: jobs for military spouses.
The Pikes Peak region, named the provisional home of the command in May, already has most of the big criteria on the Pentagon's scoring sheet maxed out. The area is home to the military's most important space missions and the bulk of the new U.S. Space Force and houses a civilian workforce of space experts that’s unparalleled.
“While certainly every community certainly thinks very highly of themselves, in terms of military space I don't see any place that can hold a candle to Colorado Springs,” said Reggie Ash, who heads military and defense programs for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC.
The command, created by Congress in 2018, is charged with preventing wars in space by building a coalition of allies and building plans for battles that reach orbit if a war breaks out.
It is a high priority for the White House and military leaders as rivals including Russia and China along with lesser powers like Iran develop anti-satellite weapons that could deprive American troops on the ground the intelligence, navigation signals and communications capabilities they now get from military satellites.
That means Colorado Springs, with its wide array of military satellite missions, was miles ahead in the first round of the Pentagon contest to house the command, but that was only enough to keep its 1,400 troops here for six years under the provisional tag.
After politics delayed a decision on the command’s permanent location amid political wrangling, the Air Force issued a new set of criteria earlier this year for host cities and threw the competition wide open by allowing almost every city in the country to make a bid.
The Pentagon is measuring more than military capabilities in the towns that want to house the command, including quality of life, with the employment of military spouses weighing as heavily as mountain views and recreational opportunities.
That’s partially because, nationally, military spouses haven’t fared well even as the economy recovered after the Great Recession, with an unemployment rate seven times that of their civilian counterparts.
Consulting powerhouse Deloitte completed a study this month examining the issue and found that finding work for spouses is a key factor troops weigh when deciding whether to stay in uniform.
“At the highest level, military spouse unemployment is a readiness problem, it is an enduring problem and it is a local problem,” said Joe Mariani, a Deloitte research manager who worked on the study.
Mariani said the military is also looking at dollars and cents in the spousal employment equation. If a highly-trained satellite operator walks away from the Space Force because their spouse can’t find a job, the military is out millions of dollars required to recruit and educate a replacement.
With unemployment rates hanging below 3% for most of 2019, The Pikes peak region is one of the more attractive job markets near military bases in America. And local leaders hope a recent legislative change and local programs to match military husbands and wives to jobs will win praise at the Pentagon.
The Legislature this year passed a law signed by Gov. Jared Polis that gives military spouses unprecedented freedom to transfer professional licenses from other states to Colorado during frequent military moves. The state in the past had more limited efforts to allow nurses and some other professionals to work here after a military move.
Now, the license transfer rules for military spouses cover every licensed profession from teaching to boxing. That answers a Pentagon concern that Deloitte identified as a key hurdle for military spouses in the job market.
Ash said the chamber has also partnered with national organizations including Hire Our Heroes along with state and federal government leaders to connect spouses with employers here.
The licensing bill passed in the nick of time. Colorado Springs had to file its latest bid for the command in June, with a final decision expected in early 2021 from the Pentagon.
Mariani, a former Marine officer, said spousal employment is something military towns can expect the Pentagon to emphasize in the future anytime it is looking to move troops.
“We are starting to realize it is something we do need to address and address at a national level,” he said.
The chamber and local government leaders have teamed up in their effort to keep the command. A lobbying effort will feature the city’s dedication to getting military spouses employed.
The command is worth the effort, with a total economic impact estimated at $1 billion a year or more. Ash said the command will also help grow the Pikes Peak region’s job market.
Wherever the command goes, he said, space contractors will follow.
But Colorado Springs does have one hidden advantage that Ash said could give it an edge: experience.
“Since 1941 this community has been all about bringing in more military and supporting our military,” he said.