Jim Warner always had good jobs, but they never seemed to last. He had been a technical sergeant in Vietnam, and then, after returning to Los Angeles, he worked as an air-traffic controller, a Hughes Aircraft manufacturing coordinator and a real estate agent. When the cold war ended and Southern California's economy slumped, Warner moved to New Jersey and took a low-wage position as a shoe salesman. He worked hard, but the job didn't really pay off--until the day he fit a pair of black, Italian flats on the slender feet of Mary Del Guidice.
Del Guidice, a director of nursing at Hackensack University Medical Center, liked Warner's way with customers. "He was helping out these little old ladies who would have driven anyone crazy," she recalls. "I saw how patient and compassionate he was with them, and I thought he was a natural for nursing." They got to talking, and, over time, she persuaded him to make yet another career switch. Today Nurse Warner, 53, bustles around the hospital's unit for patients emerging from surgery, his goateed face smiling above a burly frame clad in spotless white scrubs. He earns $65,000 and goes home feeling a sense of satisfaction. "A lot of men have had good careers--even many good careers, like me," he says. "But at some point, you realize you're lost. I have finally found my calling in, yes, a women's field."
More and more men are heeding the call, taking up occupations traditionally dominated by females. Searching for more meaningful work or simply desperate for a paycheck in a sluggish economy, they are applying in increasing numbers for jobs or training in nursing, child care, housekeeping, teaching. The jobs are often crying out for more applicants, and offer solid, if unspectacular, pay. There's a downside, though, including cutesy nicknames like "murses" for male nurses and "mannies" for nannies. And pop-culture stereotyping is hard to shake. Consider Ben Stiller's ridiculed nurse in Meet the Parents, Freddie Prinze Jr.'s fragile nanny on Friends and Eddie Murphy's hapless child-care provider in the upcoming film Daddy Day Care.
But there may be strength in the shifting numbers. Men account for 5.4% of registered nurses, up from 2.7% in 1980--still a small number, to be sure, but they represent 9% of nursing-school students, and schools say applications have swelled. In public schools, just 26% of teachers are men. But males account for about a third of students in crash training courses for teachers in New York City and Los Angeles; in L.A., 43% of applicants for those courses are men. A rush of men is hitting employment agencies like Help Unlimited in Washington, which says males account for half its placements in secretarial and administrative temp jobs, up from just a few before 2000. Maria Raimo of Elite Nannies in New York City says, "Male applications are way up in the past year, what with all the layoffs. I have people who used to work at IBM and other corporations registering as housemen, companions for the elderly."