More men are changing careers to be nurses

  • Experts say an aging baby boomer population is resulting in a nursing shortage so severe the profession is actively recruiting men, like College of DuPage's Brandon Smith, for the first time.

      Experts say an aging baby boomer population is resulting in a nursing shortage so severe the profession is actively recruiting men, like College of DuPage's Brandon Smith, for the first time. James Fuller | Staff Photographer

Posted11/18/2019 5:40 AM

Daniel McGoldrick had what many would consider a dream job. The company he created programmed smart houses for superrich people. He made great money. He worked from home. He took vacations whenever he wanted.

"And I totally hated it," McGoldrick said. "The work I was doing had no intrinsic or extrinsic value, at all, to me."


About a year earlier, Brandon Smith found himself feeling the same way.

He was 14 years into a career in sales at Frito-Lay. He spent every workday on Chicago's North Side trying to persuade store managers to buy snacks and display them in prominent places in their shops.

"It was just monotonous work," Smith said. "There was no challenge to it. You could only progress so far. I just found myself getting more and more melancholy. I would listen to audiobooks all day on the job."

In the classrooms at schools such as the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and Chamberlain University in Addison, the seats are increasingly filled with men, like McGoldrick and Smith. They spent years at jobs that didn't give them everything they sought in a career. Now they are turning to a profession that history suggests they don't belong in -- nursing.

At the start of the decade, census data shows, there were 3.5 million nurses in the United States. Only 330,000, about 9%, were men. But even those small numbers represented explosive growth. In 1970, only 2.7% of registered nurses were men.

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More recently, a 2017 paper published by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth put the number of men in the profession at 13%.

The reason for the surge is as much about economics as it is career fulfillment, according to Jason Mott, national secretary for the American Association for Men in Nursing. Mott, who's been a nurse for 18 years, said U.S. demographics show nursing needs men like no time before.

"The Baby Boomers are retiring, and there is a deep nursing shortage projected for the next 10 to 15 years," Mott said. "Because of the large aging population, the profession has started to look at ways to get men involved in nursing."

Moving to nursing careers

Targeted recruitment is underway at places like Chamberlain University in Addison. The school is a magnet for men interested in nursing, with about 150 males enrolled at any given time out of the 1,200 students (12.5%) taking courses at the campus.

"Our male population has always been pretty high at Chamberlain," said Jan Snow, president of the Addison campus. "At most nursing schools, you'll see a 1% or 2% male population. We're delighted just because of the diversity and the blend of perspectives it brings to campus."


And the school is looking to build on that. In recognition of the high appeal of nursing for men looking to transition from a current career, the school this year unveiled an evenings and weekends bachelor's in nursing degree program.

Snow said the school is seeing male paramedics and firefighters moving into nursing. The trend is so strong that Chamberlain created a new Certified First Responder Scholarship at its campus. It provides tuition assistance of up to $1,000 per semester to certified or licensed first responders.

Charles Glasser spent more than 17 years working as a paramedic for the Montgomery & Countryside Fire Protection District and the Little Rock-Fox Fire Protection District. A little more than a year ago, he transitioned into being a home health nurse, driving in his car to visit patients in hopes of keeping them out of an ambulance.

"As a medic, you always wonder what happened to your patient on the other side," Glasser said. "We pick them up and drop them off and that's it. Some of the times you'd take them to the hospital, and you see them at Walmart sometime later, so you'd know they were OK. But the acutely sick patients, you never really knew what happened with them."

Glasser said he thinks more men will flow into nursing, but there are still barriers when it comes to stigma. The world of firefighter/paramedics is dominated by men. Nursing is the exact opposite. And Glasser has heard all the jokes and stereotypes, from "Meet the Parents" movie quotes to the more generic quips about doctors being men while women are the nurses.

"I just don't see the profession that way," he said. "In nursing, in health care, we all work as a team. Why does it matter if you're male or female? Every male nurse I come across is just as caring as anyone else. We should all be evaluated on our skill and education."

Alfredo Caballero was a medic in the Army before becoming a firefighter/paramedic for the Buffalo Grove Fire Department. For the past two years, he's spent his days off working as a nurse at St. Anthony's Hospital in Chicago. His experience in those workplaces showed him nursing needs men.

In some situations, Caballero said, it's an adjustment for patients to have a male nurse, but in others, it's a welcome change.

"When I was in nursing school, going to observe labor and delivery, some of the patients or the fathers didn't want you in there seeing their wife exposed or handling the baby," Caballero said. "But in the emergency room, you'll have guys come in with an STD (sexually transmitted disease) who don't want to talk to a female nurse or show a female nurse what's going on. And there are times when the female nurses like having a guy on the team because the difficult male patients tend to not fight with me as much."

Stability and advancement

Stability and career advancement opportunities in nursing also are a big attraction. Statistics show the median salary for nurses is about $70,000 and that amount is expected to climb with the demand.

Mott and the American Association for Men in Nursing have a plan to help men meet that demand. The association is kicking off a program where people will visit high schools to get students and guidance counselors familiar and comfortable with the image of men in nursing at an early age.

"You're seeing some of the traditionally male-dominated professions, plumbers and electricians, struggling now," Mott said. "There are a lot of guys looking for more job stability. Nursing offers that stability. In five or 10 years, I think you'll start to see male fifth-graders think when they go to college, they might want to go in wanting to become a nurse."

Having just graduated from the College of DuPage's nursing program, Smith is long past fifth grade. He doesn't want to wait a decade to see more men in the profession or a greater comfort level with male nurses treating patients. A big part of being a good nurse, he said, is making a patient feel comfortable no matter what.

"I find myself telling my origin story a lot," Smith said. "Why would you want to be a nurse? Because you want to be around naked people? No. The people we are around are coughing and sick and pooping. But I think the more men you see in the profession, the more people will get used to it."

McGoldrick will be a good test case. He plans to become a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, treating babies who entered the world in less than perfect health. There are almost no men in that area of nursing.

"When you say 'nurse,' everyone pictures a woman," McGoldrick said. "That's just how it's been for so long. The labor and delivery nurses I talk to say they would love to have more guys. I don't really know from the patient side. I think people are becoming more open to less traditional roles in the workplace. And I'm hoping it is just about me being good at what I do. Providing the care people need. Having the ability to connect with patients. But we'll see. Come talk to me again in a couple of years."

McGoldrick graduates in December.

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