By RICH REZLER
Dwayne King brushes off the wisecracks and sidesteps the stigma.
As a nursing assistant at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and a full-time student in the Washtenaw Community College nursing program, the 25-year-old has heard all the jokes and faced many of the obstacles that males in the nursing profession regularly encounter.
“A lot of guys I know, even my own family, laugh and joke about me being a nurse,” King says.
“And to be honest, before I got into it, I would probably have made those same jokes. But now I throw those thoughts to the back of my head and forget them. I’m comfortable with myself. I enjoy nursing.”
King, a 2010 Ann Arbor Huron High School graduate who previously earned a Nursing Assistant Skill Training certificate from WCC, is one of 31 male nursing students currently enrolled at the college. They’re part of a growing number of men pursuing a career in nursing nationwide.
While the field is far from gender-balanced, a study released by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth in October 2017 documented the steady rise of men in nursing over the past four decades. It claims the percentage of men in the field has risen from 2.2 percent in 1960 to 13 percent in most recent estimates.
Organizations like the American Association of Men in Nursing (AAMN) are working to increase those numbers more dramatically.
Dean of Health Sciences Dr. Valerie Greaves recently helped a group of male nursing students start an AAMN chapter at WCC, the first of its kind in the state of Michigan. That group has a goal of 20-percent male enrollment in nursing programs throughout the United States by the year 2020.
“Our primary job is to support all of our students in any way we can,” Greaves said. “If starting an AAMN chapter on campus can provide students with some educational support and professional advocacy, it’s a win for everybody.
“Another role we play is filling the demands of the industry. There’s a movement in health care to better match the nursing workforce with the demographics of patients. The industry is seeking more minority nurses to better represent patients culturally, and it’s seeking more men to ensure male patients are well represented and that male healthcare needs are fully understood.”
The primary reason for the steady increase of males in nursing is simple: It’s a good-paying job that is in increasingly high demand. And that demand shows little signs of slowing down.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median annual salary for registered nurses at $68,450 and expects a 15-percent increase in job opportunities by 2026. That’s a 15-percent increase in a field that already is considered to have a critical shortage of skilled workers in the pipeline.
Another trend that has resulted in an uptick in the number of male nurses is career changes. According to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth study, a large percentage of men who enter nursing programs do so in their 20s and 30s, looking for a more rewarding profession.
For WCC student Rene Tosi, that move came in his 40s, when his frustration with sitting at a desk all day tracking deliveries for a supply chain company reached a breaking point.
“I needed to do something different, something I was passionate about and that helped people. You can do much more for people in nursing than in business,” said Tosi, a father of two. “I talked to my wife about it and we decided that I should pursue my dream.”
When Tosi was in his 20s, his brother was the victim of a gunshot wound that left him a quadriplegic. Tosi cared for his brother around the clock for years, building a bond that brought them emotionally closer than they’d ever been.
That’s also when Tosi first thought nursing would be a rewarding career, but he says gender roles — particularly strong in his native country of Brazil — led him to study business instead.
“It felt so good to do those things for him. So, for the last 20 years, I’ve been working in business and wishing I could instead be doing something to help other people,” Tosi said.
Of course, Tosi is aware that providing such intimate care for a sibling is different than providing it to a stranger.
His classmate, King, can recount first-hand experiences he’s had as a nursing assistant that define the biggest obstacle male nurses face in the workplace.
Because of the same established gender roles that have prevented men from becoming nurses, both male and female patients are sometimes uncomfortable with a male nurse providing private and personal care.
“I’ve had patients tell me they’d prefer a female nursing assistant to help with certain things, which I respect, but that’s almost like a challenge to me,” King said. “Many times, by the end of their stay, those same patients are letting me help with everything.
“Professionalism and compassion help them forget those gender roles.”