It Takes Two: Employers, business groups work to welcome ‘trailing spouses’ to the community

Ryan and Ann Olson longed to return to their native Grand Traverse region from the Lansing area to raise their family. But it didn’t seem feasible any time soon because Ann was in law school full time at Michigan State University.

Nevertheless, Ryan said he always kept his eyes open for career opportunities in the Traverse City area. And when a job for an international business accountant opened at Hagerty, a classic vehicle insurance firm, he went for it.

“I applied for the job knowing it would be extremely hard to leave,” Olson said.

But Hagerty’s emphasis on helping the families of new employees adjust to the community led Olson to accept the company’s job offer. Ryan, Ann and their two-year-old daughter relocated to Traverse City last September.

Finding job opportunities and other accommodations for “trailing spouses” has long been a challenge — and continues to be — for many employers, especially those in smaller communities like Traverse City with fewer job options for following spouses and partners.

Among married couples with children in the United States, 61.1 percent had both parents employed in 2017, up from just 25 percent in 1960, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Pew Research Center.

The lack of an employment opportunity for a spouse or partner in a new community can be a significant recruiting barrier for companies seeking top talent, but several local groups are addressing the problem.
The Traverse Area Human Resource Association, a group of local human resources professionals, has started an informal email chain to share resumes received by trailing spouses and partners among employers.

“It’s a beneficial way to connect them [with job opportunities and community resources],” said Betsy Williams, a Northwestern Michigan College human resources executive and chair of the group.

The Front Street Irregulars, a group of about 120 local leaders that promote development of high-value-added, export-oriented businesses in the region, also work informally to help trailing spouses and partners find employment. Casey Cowell, a venture capitalist who founded the group three years ago, said spouses and partners of highly-educated people can be a good source of talent for the region. “Smart, creative people tend to bring smart creative people with them,” he said.

Cowell said his group has helped 10 spouses and partners of new employees to the area find jobs. “We need to make sure everyone is treated well and woven into the community,” he said.

Hagerty executives are especially attuned to the family needs of new employees because the company is growing so quickly, according to aid Gretchen Overbeek, vice president of human resources at Hagerty. The company hired 250 workers last year, bringing total employment to 1,050. About 700 of those workers are located in Traverse City.

“We look at the whole person when we’re recruiting,” Overbeek said. “We’re not just bringing in an employee.”

Hagerty uses a number of tactics in helping the spouses of new employees find jobs and get settled in the community. The company’s recruiters share spouses’ resumes with other major local employers, including Munson Healthcare. It sometimes allows new employees to work remotely in communities where their spouses are employed. And – on occasion – Hagerty has hired spouses of new employees.

“We recently recruited an actuary and hired his spouse as a sales agent. It just kind of worked out,” said Rachel Wasserman, Hagerty’s senior enterprise recruiter.

Hagerty also pairs new employees with current employees to give tips on finding housing, day care and other community resources. Olson said such assistance and Hagerty’s flexible employment environment have been invaluable to him and his family. Ann Olson travels to East Lansing two or three days a week to attend law school classes. Ryan said Hagerty allows him to work from home when they don’t have day care while she’s away.

“Young people are struggling to find day care,” he said. “My managers are super understanding about it. Hagerty has a reputation for being flexible and they really do hold to that. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Hagerty executives say such flexibility is especially crucial in recruiting younger employees. “Retaining and attracting talent is a big challenge,” Wasserman said. “Sixty percent of our people are millennials. Work-life balance is important to them.”

Olson’s Hagerty colleagues also helped his wife identify an internship opportunity in the Grand Traverse County prosecutor’s office, where she’ll work this summer.

While it can be difficult for the trailing spouse or partner to find employment in Traverse City, there is some evidence the problem could be easing a bit. Munson Healthcare, which has seen rapid growth, started a program to assist the trailing spouses of new physicians in 2012. But spokesperson Dale Killingbeck said the program hasn’t played a significant role in the recruitment of physicians in the past couple of years.

Hagerty’s Overbeek said the region’s strong economic growth and a burgeoning reputation for high quality of life are creating more appeal and job opportunities for trailing spouses and partners.

“We continue to get more name recognition as a city,” she said. “The region offers a lot of opportunities for young talent, such as breweries, wineries and outdoor recreation. Those things help us in our recruiting.”