I Want Your Job, Lady!

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When the tech bubble burst, former Marine and professional football player Reginald Grant, 47, turned to teaching

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."

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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."

For women, the trend is a mixed blessing. Some advocates have long argued that pay in fields like child care and teaching would not rise significantly until men moved into them. But amid today's persistently high unemployment, some women are worried that men are muscling into the last reliable sources of jobs for females — not to mention the management posts. With men around, for women "it's like being an apprentice who never becomes a journeyman," says Tina Abbott, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Michigan. Certainly the job market remains bleak. Overall unemployment rose again in April to 6%, with job searches for laid-off workers averaging five months. Half of all job seekers have switched industries over the past year, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Given that the industries with the most openings include nursing and teaching, notes CEO John Challenger, "artificial barriers like gender begin to break down when people have to make ends meet."

It isn't always desperation that drives the shift; sometimes it's simply the quest for job satisfaction. Nick Peters, 48, of Des Moines had spent years in hospital administration when he hit a wall. He had grown up believing "the man gets up, puts on his suit and tie, goes to work from 9 to 5 at the same place for 35 years," he says. "But I realized that's a bunch of hooey." In the fall, he will begin course work to become a "real-time" reporter, the modern moniker for a court reporter. The skill is in brisk demand, in part to provide closed captioning for TV, and reporters average $64,000 a year. Membership in the National Court Reporters Association is 90% female. Peters will join the other 10% when he starts his reporting course in the fall, although no men are enrolled in that course today.

The "female" professions tend to offer more flexible hours. Ron Patrizio, 43, a biotech-firm sales rep in Central Florida, got sick of his old routine. He spent much of his time wining and dining doctors, hoping they would prescribe his firm's drugs. He made as much as $67,000 a year, and constantly accompanied clients to operas and hockey games. "But you have no life," he says. "You live and die by how many vials of insulin you sell that month. They expected you to schmooze 24-7." On a whim, he took a class in massage therapy. Men make up less than 20% of the profession, but at the Pinellas Park school Patrizio attended, a third of those enrolled were men. In his first year he earned only $18,000, but the job gave him time to meet the woman who is now his wife.

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