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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 13, 2006

With nurse shortage, recruiters target men

By Lorene Yue
Chicago Tribune

Ben Stiller, right, played a nurse who upon meeting his future father-in-law, played by Robert De Niro, also encountered the older man's contempt for nursing as a professional choice for a male.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | 2000

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CHICAGO Quick, name a male nurse on TV or in the movies who was neither ridiculed nor portrayed wearing a white dress and cap.

Ben Stiller was derided in "Meet the Parents" for his nursing career by tough guy and future father-in-law Robert De Niro. Jamie Farr donned drag as Cpl. Maxwell Klinger in "M*A*S*H," his nurse's cap askew and hairy legs peeking out from beneath his crisp white dress, turning the nurse uniform into his symbol of mental instability.

Overcoming these potent images is an enormous barrier for recruiters as they try to solve the nation's growing shortage of nurses. Recruiters from nursing schools, medical institutions and corporations are turning to the next promising group: men.

"It's a whole area that is untapped," said Jim Raper, president of the American Assembly for Men in Nursing.

It's not a simple task. Beyond the incessant teasing is the perception that male nurses are orderlies or failed medical students.

"I've been in nursing for 30 years now, and we still have stereotypes that I see on TV and in the movies," said Frank Moore, a teacher at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and board member of the American Nurses Association.

The federal government estimates that the industry is short more than 140,000 nurses this year. By 2020, the shortage is expected to swell to 800,000.

The industry looked overseas. They recruited in the Philippines, Ireland and Canada for certified English-speaking nurses who could report to work in the U.S. immediately. While those efforts continue, it's not enough to solve the shortage, nursing professionals said.

Despite less-than-flattering stereotyping, there are men going into nursing, albeit few in number. Roughly 6 percent of all nurses are men, and there were nearly 2,600 more seeking a bachelor's degree in nursing in 2005 than in 2004, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

"Why not nursing?" asked Tim Freeman, a second-year nursing student at West Suburban College of Nursing in Oak Park, Ill. "I am doing what I want to do."

Some men are lured by the job security: More than 90 percent of 2005 nursing graduates found jobs. And there's the pay, which can start at $40,000. Nursing specialists can earn $100,000. Others are looking to switch to a career that combines medicine, counseling and care giving.

For the last three years, West Suburban has hosted a "Men in Nursing" day twice per year to encourage nursing as a career.

"We thought it might be a good idea for men to hear from other men," enrollment director Cynthia Valdez said. West Suburban had four men, its largest number, graduating in December.

Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash., produced a 10-minute DVD called "Nursing, it's more than a job" to draw more men into the field. The college has seen an increase in applications since the DVD was released earlier this year, but school officials said it was difficult to tell if it was a direct result of the marketing piece.

The Oregon Center for Nursing has a recruiting campaign called "Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse?"

Johnson & Johnson has made a concerted effort to feature men in its print and broadcast materials on the nursing profession.

"We want people to look at the material and say, 'I can see myself in that profession,' " said Andrea Higham, director of Johnson & Johnson's nursing campaign.

Still, the stigma lingers, and it can be tough to convince high school boys to consider nursing.

"You've got to be pretty strong in high school to say you are going into nursing," said Don Houchins, director of nursing education and maternal-child services at Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital Center in Chicago.

Houchins, who graduated from high school in 1973, studied nursing in college. Although he endured sly looks and the silent disapproval of his father for a few years, attending college on a wrestling scholarship helped him.

Raper said that despite the shortage, there does not seem to be a concerted effort to give men a financial incentive.

"I don't see many (nursing) scholarships targeting men," Raper said. "If we're really serious, we've got to do more."

The profession has evolved beyond handholding, sponge baths and backrubs. Nurses have shed the perception of being a doctor's handmaid. Nurses provide assessments, educate patients and work with technologically advanced machines. Some suture wounds and order medication. And they are not always roaming hospital hallways; nurses work on cruise ships and in corporate America, schools and the military. They become healthcare administrators or chief executive officers of hospital networks.

"There are a lot more nursing avenues than I thought," said Paul Hernandez, a Chicago police officer who is attending nursing school. "My only regret is that I should have done this years ago."

For most men, nursing is a second, third or even fourth career.

"Men stayed away from the profession because the pay and benefits and ability to move up was not enough to provide for their families as the traditional (head of household) role needed," said Tom Renkes, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association. Salary isn't as much of an issue today because the shortage of nurses pushed up wages and more women began working, sharing the load of supporting their families.

Freeman worked as a fireman and underwater welder before pursuing a longtime goal of becoming a nurse. Mike Kemp considered nursing after losing his job at the Chicago Board of Trade.

"I didn't want to start over in sales and I didn't want to start over in business," Kemp said. "I didn't want an MBA. I'm 38. I don't want to go through all of that."

Hernandez said he always had an interest in helping people, even during his 14 years as a medic in the Army and six years teaching in the Chicago Public School district. Two years ago, he decided to take the plunge and get a nursing degree with the goal of working in an emergency room.

"It's high octane," he said.