(The New York Times) IN 2007, Kurt Edwards figured he would be stacking and racking 80-pound boxes of dog food and celery in the back of a grocery store for the rest of his working life. And he was fine with that.
But that June, after nine years on the job, layoff notices arrived on the warehouse floor at the Farmer Jack store in Detroit where he worked. His employer, Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, closed the Farmer Jack chain. Today he still does a lot of lifting, but of people, not boxes. Mr. Edwards joined the ranks of former warehouse, factory and autoworkers trading in their coveralls and job uncertainty for nurses’ scrubs.
At 49, divorced with no children, he now tends to patients on the graveyard shift at Sheffield Manor Nursing and Rehab Center, a two-story, gray brick building in a ramshackle neighborhood on Detroit’s west side. Interviewed last month, he says he is making about $70,000 annually, $20,000 more than he did at the warehouse.
The story of how he made the transition is one that men like him appear to be telling with increasing frequency, and the demand for their services is what is setting so many of them on similar paths.
Hard figures are elusive, but the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth estimates a shortage of 18,000 nurses in the state by 2015 — and the labor force is adapting.
Oakland University in nearby Rochester, Mich., has established a program specifically to retrain autoworkers in nursing — about 50 a year since 2009. And the College of Nursing at Wayne State University in Detroit is enrolling a wide range of people switching to health careers, including former manufacturing workers, said Barbara Redman, its dean. “They bring age, experience and discipline,” she said.
David Pomerville brings a few more years than Mr. Edwards. A 57-year-old nursing student, he spent most of his career as an automotive vibration engineer, including almost 10 years at General Motors. His pink slip arrived in April 2009.
At the time, Mr. Pomerville was earning almost $110,000 a year at the General Motors Milford Proving Ground in Milford Township, Mich.
But having watched another round of bloodletting at G.M. three years earlier, he had already decided on nursing as his Plan B. “I thought, ‘Well, I worked on cars for this long, now I’m going to work on people for a while,’ ” he said.
A married father of two and grandfather of two, Mr. Pomerville had almost no money saved when he was laid off. But the federal Trade Readjustment Act, which aids workers who lose their jobs as a result of foreign competition, paid for nursing school tuition. His wife is a teacher, and he receives unemployment benefits. He hopes to graduate at the end of this year, and he expects his salary will be about half what he used to make.
Timothy Henk ultimately decided not to try to stick it out as long as Mr. Pomerville did. Mr. Henk, 32, worked for eight years at the Ford Sterling Axle Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., installing drive shafts in the F-150 truck, and was making about $25 an hour by 2007. With overtime, he earned $70,000 a year.
But as he and his wife contemplated having children, he worried that income would not last. So in 2007, he took a buyout, which included $15,000 a year for four years to put toward education. Two friends in nursing — both women — had suggested he look into joining their profession. He researched the demand for nurses in Michigan and used the buyout money to pay his tuition at Wayne State.
The amount of schooling required to be a nurse depends on the level of nursing a student chooses to pursue. Mr. Henk went through Wayne State’s four-year program to obtain a bachelor of science in nursing and then took a licensing exam to become a registered nurse, or R.N. Other levels of nursing include the C.N.A., or certified nurse’s aide, which can require as little as eight weeks of training plus a certification exam, and L.P.N., or licensed practical nurse, which requires one or two years of schooling and a licensing exam.
All of that assumes acceptance in a nursing program. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing said more than 67,000 applicants were turned away in 2010 for lack of faculty or classroom space — not a good sign with a national nursing shortage projected to be as high as 500,000 by 2025.
Mr. Henk now works in the critical care unit at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. He makes about $50,000 annually for a 36-hour workweek, though Ford’s health insurance was better.
The choice to make this switch was probably least likely for Mr. Edwards, the former grocery worker. He dropped out of college and spent four years in the Army as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. He found his unionized warehouse job after a stint working for his father, an accountant.
“You have this plan, this goal,” he said. “I was going to be at this warehouse; all the guys were retiring with great benefits. I was part of the middle class, and I was going to make it.”
When it became clear that he would not make it to retirement there, someone he was dating suggested nursing.
Though he wrote it off as woman’s work at first, he realized he was getting a bit old for manual labor. So he returned to school, living on unemployment checks and occasional groceries from by his mother. He spent the last four months of his L.P.N. training with no electricity because he could not afford to pay any bills except rent.
Once he finished, the Sheffield Manor administrator, LaKeshia Bell, pretty much hired him on the spot. “They are like a hot commodity,” she said. “A male presence actually helps us in the facility.” At 5 feet 9 inches tall and 220 pounds, Mr. Edwards lifts patients as easily as he stacked boxes.
But he still appears to be a rarity. Just 7 percent of employed registered nurses are men, according to a 2008 Department of Health and Human Services survey. It did not count licensed practical nurses. Still, the percentage of people certified in nursing in some way who are men has risen to 9.6 percent since 2000 from 6.2 percent before, according to the department.
Ms. Bell noted that new nurses coming from manufacturing had unusual adjustments to make. When dealing with parts on the factory floor, she said, repetition is a major part of the job. “These are not parts. They’re people, so you can’t just have a set regimen like in a plant setting,” she said.
That cultural shift goes both ways. Mr. Edwards’s supervisor, Yvonne Gipson, provided an example. “I mean Kurt is not an ugly man, O.K.?” she said. “You got all these female workers, and they’re all looking at him like, ‘Oh! Potential husband!’ So, yes, it does change.” Her voice trailed off, erupting into peals of laughter as Mr. Edwards slipped a $20 bill into her pocket.
While these success stories point to opportunity, Michigan’s unemployment rate is still 9 percent. And Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says history is a cruel taskmaster when it comes to struggling industries.
“When one industry goes in decline and another comes to the fore, you don’t have a one-to-one employment replacement at all,” he said. “It takes a decade, two decades. In the meantime, some people find their careers are ended, ruined, and they never get them back.”
For these new nurses, the advantage is the demand in Michigan. Mr. Edwards knows he is lucky. “You know I wake up every day and I’m very proud,” he said. “I’m looking in the mirror. I’m happy. I’m proud. I’m saying, you know, this turned out great. The lights are on!”