Get to know: Sarah Peñaluna

Behind every phone call, email or piece of advice with a spouse or partner is a member of the Families programme who make it their mission to provide strong employment support for the military spouse or partner.

As a team of spouses the Families Programme thoroughly understands the barriers, such as frequent moves, isolated locations and employer reluctance, that military spouses and partners face. Female military spouses in particular find that employment comes with extra barriers such as gaps in career due to being a primary caregiver or a need for flexibility due to spousal deployment. By providing one-to-one advice, guidance, bespoke career and training advice and so much more the Families Programme team help spouses and partners to move past these barriers.

This month we are carrying on our monthly Meet The Team interviews by speaking to Sarah Peñaluna, military spouse, veteran and Families Programme caseworker.

Hello Sarah! Thanks for joining me today. My first question is, can you tell me about your career up until you joined FEC?  

Absolutely! I started in the Irish Defence Force. I then worked for 11 years in the Army at HQ in County Cork then six years with the Naval Service! I studied at the TUS Technological University and the University of Limerick. I got a BA in Business and a Masters in Human Resource Management. Prior to moving to the UK where I took a career break, I started in the careers and employment department as a careers officer at the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest (TUS). From there I moved on to a staff officer for the VP of academic affairs and from there I became a lecturer in human resource management at the International Business department at TUS. That’s what I did in Ireland! My first role in the UK was working for Oxford Health NHS as an HR officer and an Armed Forces champion, where we provided dedicated employability and mentoring support to members of the Armed Forces community. We wanted to identify in-house opportunities within the NHS for Service leavers, reservists, veterans, cadets and their families. I offered advice and support for their professional journey and the transition into the NHS with Step into Health.

You sound like you have had quite the journey. So you were in both the Navy and the Army?  

Yes, I was in both! 

Great, what appeals to you about working in the Forces?  

I had done a significant amount of years and achieved everything I wanted to achieve in the Defence Forces, I was in logistics as a driver. I never actually knew how to drive and learnt in the army! Off road driving, tactical driving, everything, it was so cool, I went from not knowing how to drive to getting my licence up to a truck. I just felt like there was a lot to explore in terms of transferable skills that could be used in the Navy. What I wanted to do there was essentially the same thing but also be on an RIB – I wanted to be able to be deployed on the ships and wanted to be trained on the RIB. I wanted to get that element of maritime skill and ship ops. But I was also one of the senior drivers in my unit! It was so good and so interesting, and I am so glad I got to wear both hats and experience both Forces.

Sounds like an incredible journey!

On the back of both these significant experiences, I did a lot of recruitment too. I always incorporated training into my role, whether I was training others how to drive or how to be a good soldier or specific aspects of how the ship functioned, I was always factoring in conversations about the trajectory of my job and others’ jobs too. We would do a lot of training and then talk about where we wanted to end up in a few years. I also did a lot of confidence-building elements, I created a safe space where people could talk about their aspirations and future. I believed and still do believe that having a career champion is so important. We called it the buddy-buddy system and these conversations were key in making me feel fulfilled and that I was giving back to my comrades alongside me.

That leads quite nicely into my next question, which is what you do at the Forces Employment Charity. You mentioned that recruitment and development has always been a part of what you’ve done. So what do you do now?

My role now is as an employment advisor with the Families Programme. We support civilian spouses and partners of serving and ex-Forces personnel into employment, which includes divorced spouses and widows. The areas I cover are East, South East, NI and overseas, as part of a close-knit team within the Forces Employment Charity.

What made you want to work on the Families Programme?  

Something I think people need to remember is that transition also happens for the spouse, so my transition was moving from Ireland to the UK to be with my husband who was serving in the British Army. I took a career break, I was committed to being a supportive military spouse. I researched military spouse support and found Forces Families Jobs. I then emailed someone called Jenna and told her about myself. She referred me to RFEA, now Forces Employment Charity, Families Programme and from there I got a phenomenal employment advisor, Joanne (EM3 Armed Forces Veterans and Families programme manager)! We hit it off perfectly. That element of support was exactly what I needed – I mean, I knew how to job search, I could write my own CV, I was a professional! But I needed a career champion, someone I could relate to, military spouse to military spouse, who understood me on a deeper level. I needed a confidential safe space to talk about my desires and aspirations. Once I had done that I needed to have an action plan in place and milestones to work towards. I enjoyed the process so much more than if I had done it alone. I really tried to keep my journey into employment separate from the support I was providing my husband and his new role in the British Army.

That support really made me realise how much I wanted to merge my Armed Forces experience and my career consultancy with being a military spouse and combine it and work within the military community. I could wear those multiple hats and I wanted that one role that would allow me to utilise all the different parts of my identity. I identify as a veteran and I identify as a military spouse. This role allowed me to encompass all of that. I understand what it’s like to be serving and to be a military spouse and I have the expertise to back it up to help individuals to reach their goals and aspirations.

That is so true, you can understand the veteran and military spouse perspectives. Let’s talk a little more about your job, what is your favourite part of your role as an employment advisor?

My favourite part of my job is making a positive impact. Without a shadow of a doubt. Supporting my clients in achieving everything they set out to in their journey. Seeing the happiness and enthusiasm in my clients when they achieve each and every step of their career plan, and supporting and motivating military spouses to fulfil their potential in their career with the employability support I provide. That’s it. I feel that the core element of making someone’s aspirations a reality is helping them to have a positive journey.

Military spouses go for interviews and sometimes they don’t get the job making them feel knocked down, but with us, there is backup, and there is support available from your careers advisor. I am there to be that strong element for them, I am their champion, part of their buddy-buddy system, their comrade and they can offload to me, and I’m there to actively listen, help and support them.

So it’s the supportive aspect that you love most? You enjoy providing that buddy-buddy system you mentioned so that military spouses know they are never alone.

Absolutely! They are never alone. One of the best assets you can have as a military spouse is a fellow military spouse supporting you. Relatability is absolutely, profusely key when trying to support someone. You have to be singing off the same hymn sheet. You have to really understand that person’s desires and wants. I provide a very non-judgmental space, everything is significant so it’s very important that they enjoy the process. Enjoying the process means it’s easier to get to their goal.

What energizes and motivates you?

This is a lovely question! Seeing people succeed in their aspirations motivates me. However big or small the milestone. I honestly feel that everyone’s achievements and all the steps in an employment career journey are important and have a purpose. I’m really determined, positive and dedicated to each of my clients’ employment journey and seeing them achieve their goals is incredible. It is really rewarding to provide that support that gives results, like overcoming challenges, barriers and securing employment. I am highly motivated and dedicated to supporting others.

I appreciate that it’s the provision of support, being that friend and that shoulder to lean on when times are hard that energises you! What sort of challenges do your clients face and how do you support them?

Finding and growing the right career as a military spouse can be elusive. There is a certain amount of pressure being the primary parent and dual parent that military spouses face such as managing the household alone. Essentially they hold down the Homefront alone.

Another challenge is the isolation in the community when adjusting to a new place. I believe growing the confidence to network and be social in the community is important.

When it comes to the support I provide, I like to say that nothing is impossible and let’s talk transferrable skills! I really want to highlight transferrable skills because I think it assists us with the confidence-building element of employment support that again, complements the employment journey.

What’s something you’re proud of?

I’m really proud of what I represent. Representation is important, it’s key. I’m really proud of being an advocate for the military community and representing the community across the board and military spouses in particular. Anything can be achieved with the right support around you and having that burning desire to accomplish your goals. I am so proud of seeing how confidence grows in each client as we progress through the programme. It’s a journey and together we can make any career goal come true. It’s an energising, positive moment to see clients bloom.

What is the most interesting role you supported a client to obtain?

All successes are as important as each other and I couldn’t decide on only one! I have supported clients to work in the aviation industry, senior management positions, engineering roles, marketing management, MOD, civil service, and clinical and non-clinical roles! There are so many! And if we think about tech – there are so many opportunities in the sector (shoutout to the TechVets team who support our clients with incredible training opportunities)!

What advice would you give to military spouses who have been out of work and are trying to find their way back into work?

I would say, first of all, you are amazing! You are a phenomenal human being. You are strong, ambitious and courageous. You are talented. Continue to pursue your own professional goals, needs, wants and goals. Learn about the resources available to you, it is super important that you do this. Learn about the programmes available to you as a military spouse. Fellow military spouses are your biggest asset – all the advisors on the Families programme are military spouses. When you are speaking to an advisor who is living the same life as you – living on a garrison, similar accommodation and going through that same military life, you are going to get so much more from them, because of that crucial relatability factor.

Women need to celebrate each other and show the world how phenomenal we are!

Anything else you would like to add?

I have always been someone who supports the people around me, as a student, as a class rep, when I was in the Armed Forces and for my friends on a night out! My various roles and experience helped me to understand what my passion is – and this role itself doesn’t feel like work it just feels like a purpose. So I am so glad I found this programme. My experience on the Families Programme was life-changing for me. As a client, I was constantly learning new things so as an advisor I love being able to give all that back to my clients.

I also believe it is super important that we support fellow military spouses by celebrating their accomplishments and recognising the sacrifices that military spouses make each and every day not just once a year!

Find out more about our Military Women Programme here and our Families Programme here!

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