As Rochester grows, 'trailing spouses' still struggle to find work

MaryAnn Matveyenko
MaryAnn Matveyenko has a Ph.D. in integrated biology and led a lab at the highly ranked University of Southern California before her husband landed a job at Mayo Clinic four years ago.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Professionally speaking, MaryAnn Matveyenko is a catch.

Before she moved to Rochester four years ago when her husband took a job at Mayo, she was using her Ph.D. in integrated biology to lead a lab at the University of Southern California.

Matveyenko thought her education and skills would land her a job quickly in Rochester, which aims to become a global destination for patients and medical talent.

But despite her resume tailor-made for Rochester's ambitions, Matveyenko struggled in the job market and was even told her impressive credentials might be a liability.

"I was going to go apply for a position and I had someone say, 'Make sure you don't lead with your education because you don't want to threaten her.' And that was just the most bananas thing I'd ever heard," Matveyenko said. "Well, what do you propose I lead with? Certainly not my charm."

MPR News interviewed eight other people, men and women, who faced similar challenges finding work in law, marketing, architecture and business once moving to Rochester.

Matveyenko is what's known as a "trailing spouse" in Rochester — the partner of someone who lands their dream job at Mayo Clinic. Often, these partners are accomplished and highly educated, but some struggle to find work.

The APM Research Lab — MPR News' sister organization — compared Rochester with Duluth, which also has a substantial medical sector.

Some spouses of health care workers are not in the labor market.
Fifteen percent of nonworking spouses of health care employees hold advanced degrees in the Duluth area.
William Lager | MPR News

In both cities, one-fifth of health industry spouses don't work. But in Rochester, nonworking spouses are more likely to have an advanced degree — including a master's, doctorate or professional degree — but were not using it.

Find a new career, or keep looking?

Matveyenko's job search left her feeling discouraged. When employers ignored her applications, she was too embarrassed to tell her husband, even though he supported her job search.

"It was hard to explain to him that I wasn't even been getting interviews. In Los Angeles we had been equals," she said.

She eventually found a part-time teaching job at the local community college, which she says she loves.

Some trailing spouses MPR interviewed have pivoted to a new career; others are still looking.

For Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce President Kathleen Harrington, these trailing spouses are both a challenge and opportunity for the city.

Some spouses of health care workers are not in the labor market.
Twenty-two percent of nonworking spouses of health care employees hold advanced degrees in the Rochester area.
William Lager | MPR News

The region's relatively undiversified economy makes job searching difficult, Harrington said, so she wants to expand the chamber's new job site to include positions in the Twin Cities and as far west as Mankato.

She also wants to help trailing spouses find work as consultants, rather than payroll employees.

"We have a real need for consulting talent in this town," Harrington said. "Some of these people have tremendous, tremendous skills that could be offered."

Cathy Fraser, Mayo's human resources chief, said the clinic has hundreds of job openings that don't require a medical degree — but career experience isn't always enough to land one.

She said trailing spouses — or, as she calls it, "accompanying talent" — need to work to find a role that fits their skills and passions.

"Mayo needs amazing people," she said. "You just have to be able to show how you fit, how your puzzle piece fits within the puzzle."

But a common complaint among the people MPR News interviewed is that Mayo is opaque; job listings are vague and the company doesn't respond to applications.

Mayo recognizes Rochester needs to grow its workforce, Fraser said, and is doing more one-on-one work with trailing spouses to help them find employment through an office dedicated to new employees.

But those efforts were too late for one trailing spouse, Andrew, who asked us not to use his last name due to his wife's ongoing connections to Mayo.

Like Matveyenko, Andrew's resume was made for the city Rochester wants to become. He was a product manager for a successful health-tech start-up and has his own company in the works.

Andrew thought it would be easy to land a job here. But after many tries, he found it wasn't.

He recalled "losing all my enthusiasm and confidence because the positions I'm applying for are lower than what I'm used to."

Circumstances changed and the couple moved to Arizona a few months ago.

Andrew said it was one of the hardest decisions the couple has had to make because his wife was thriving at Mayo.

But once in Arizona, the job hunting was easier.

"I was over-prepared because of my time in Rochester. I hit the ground running," he said.

He found a job after three weeks.