Cindee Parker, whose husband, Tech. Sgt. Thomas Parker, is stationed at RAF Alconbury, is a science technician at a British public school in Raunds. Working off base can be a great opportunity for some military spouses in the United Kingdom.

Cindee Parker, whose husband, Tech. Sgt. Thomas Parker, is stationed at RAF Alconbury, is a science technician at a British public school in Raunds. Working off base can be a great opportunity for some military spouses in the United Kingdom. (Ben Murray / S&S)

Two years into her job as a school science technician, Cindee Parker says her co-workers still pick on her for her pronunciation and spelling of “aluminum.”

To her British colleagues, the right way to pronounce and spell the name of the light metal is “aluminium.”

Of course, the correct answer depends on whether you come from the land of the Stars and Stripes or that of the Union Jack. However, the good-natured kidding — or as the British say, “taking the mickey” — hurdles an unseen international boundary. It’s a sign that Parker, an American, is accepted by her British co-workers at Raunds Manor School and Sports College in the Northamptonshire village where Parker’s family lives.

“And we’re about the only Americans out here,” she said of Raunds, a 30-minute drive from RAF Alconbury where her husband, Tech. Sgt. Thomas Parker, is assigned.

Parker may be a bit unusual in her village, but she’s less so among the ranks of U.S. military spouses, many of whom are taking advantage of skills shortages and high numbers of unfilled jobs on the British economy.

In jobs from nursing to charity volunteer coordination, and from corporate headhunting to fast-food shifts, a number of spouses of U.S. military members and civilians assigned to the United Kingdom are joining the British work force.

The United Kingdom offers an uncommon advantage to Americans stationed here. Unlike in most countries outside the U.S. with an American military presence, American spouses of U.S. servicemembers do not need a work permit to work off base.

Plus, a salary in British pounds makes it easier to pay British bills such as the annual TV license or telephone bill, eliminating the need to convert less valuable dollars to sterling. That translates to earning more money for even relatively low-paid work.

As Kyna Weaver, a career consultant at RAF Lakenheath’s Family Support Center, pointed out: “Even McDonald’s jobs off base pay twice what they would on base.”

Added Sally Corey, Weaver’s equivalent at RAF Mildenhall: “I tell them, ‘Why not get paid in pounds?’ That really lights up their eyes.”

If there’s any question of an availability of jobs, Corey likes to tell the story of one Air Force wife who sought career advice at RAF Mildenhall’s Family Support Center, armed with work experience in office administration and customer service. With one call from Corey, the job seeker learned that she was just right for 46 vacancies on file at the British government-run employment office nearby.

“They said, ‘Can you have her down here soon?’” Corey said.

Not only does working off base pay off financially, it often offers ambitious spouses the chance to advance their careers in an international arena.

Mike Tarach has been promoted every year he has worked with the Royal Bank of Scotland. Tarach, who is married to Master Sgt. Linda Tarach of RAF Alconbury, is an information technology service manager with the world’s fifth-largest bank.

Every morning, he hops a train filled with commuters on the 50-minute trip into London and pursues a career that has given him responsibility for the bank’s IT service operations far and wide, including in European cities such as Frankfurt, Madrid and Paris.

“I actually deploy more with this job than I did with the Air Force,” said Tarach, who left active duty in 1994.

In the early days of his off-base career, when he worked on a help desk, Tarach’s toughest challenge was understanding the multitude of British regional and ethnic accents.

“You’d get a call from an Asian Indian, the next call would be from a Scotsman, and then there are all the varying areas of England,” he said. “Now it’s to the point where I don’t even notice the accent.”

Some spouses even work for free in order to maintain experience in their profession.

Amy Stewart, who specializes in wildlife ecology and aquatic life, volunteers with the Brecks Countryside Project near Thetford, Norfolk, on projects involving a roadside nature reserve and exotic crayfish.

The wife of a pilot assigned to RAF Mildenhall, Stewart hopes that a paid job on the staff could open up next year.

“I offered to volunteer just to get my foot in the door,” she said. A paid job isn’t assured, but she isn’t settling for work that doesn’t interest her.

The key, career consultants Corey and Weaver said, is to recognize that the sky can be the limit for spouses who opt to venture off base to work.

“I get them pumped up about the job potential. And I get just as excited as they do,” Corey said.

DeeDee Doke is a freelance writer living in Ely.

Tips of the tradeLooking for a job off-base? Here are some tips to consider:

You must obtain a National Insurance number, the U.K. equivalent to a Social Security number, to work.No work permit is needed, but you must be command-sponsored, included on the PCS orders and not have an employment restriction stamp on your passport.Instead of a résumé, create a curriculum vitae to outline your job experience. A curriculum vitae differs slightly from a résumé, so get advice on crafting your self-marketing tool.Use British English spellings instead of American. In British English, for instance, an “s” is used instead of a “z” in many words such as “organise,” and a “u” is added to words such as “colour” and “favourite.” (Turn your computer’s spell-check function on to British English.)British educational qualifications differ from those in a U.S. education. Examples: An American high school diploma is equivalent to five General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) or National Vocation Qualification (NVQ) Level 2. An Associate’s Degree is equal to two or three British A-Levels or NVQ 3.While British co-workers may seem reserved at first, the famed British sense of humor is never far from the surface. Jokes told in the workplace may be bawdier than those usually shared with office colleagues in the States.Spouses of a British company’s employees will rarely be invited to the organization’s holiday parties, which are often evening events held at a restaurant or other venue away from the office.American-style enthusiasm and work ethic may get you hired, but be aware that Britons often see Americans as over-the-top, pushy and too inclined to put in too many hours. Keep the enthusiasm but temper it to a dull roar.Sources: “Working Off Base in the UK,” a booklet available at Air Force Family Support Centers; “Perfect Strangers,” by DeeDee Doke, HR Magazine, December 2004

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