When Joe Krafft entered nursing in the early 1980s, he was something of a novelty in a profession traditionally dominated by women.

“We were the designated people-movers,” the 60-year-old nurse practitioner from Cape May Court House said with a wry laugh. “I’m paying for it now in my back and my knees after so many years of ‘Joe, can you move this patient for me?’”

Today, hospitals have more equipment to save nurses’ backs, but that’s not all that has changed.

The percentage of male nurses in the United States has more than tripled since 1970, according to Census statistics, and locally there’s an even larger contingent of men entering the profession.

At Atlantic Cape Community College — where Krafft instructs his students to, among other things, use the hydraulic lifts to move patients — 18 percent of this year’s graduating nursing students were male. Meanwhile, three of the 14 students in The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey’s most recent cohort of master’s degree recipients were men.

“It’s a decent increase, which we’re excited about, said Carol Mohrfeld, chairwoman of Atlantic Cape’s nursing department. “From a community point of view, it’s nice to have a mix of people entering the profession.”

Mohrfeld, of Hammonton, said nursing classes had averaged about 12 percent male until that figure reached 22 percent last year.

That sharp increase is due to a larger acceptance of men in nursing and their presence in marketing — “in a lot of ads, even on TV, males are in the picture,” she said — but much of it is also a function of economics.

Nursing is generally considered a stable career choice, particularly in uncertain times, Mohrfeld said. Most current nursing students fall in the 25-to-35 age range of people returning to school for a second career.

In 2010, the median salary for registered nurses was nearly $65,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with $33,000 for anyone with an associate’s degree. Registered nurses have traditionally obtained two-year associate’s degrees; however, more nurses — particularly those entering specialty fields — are returning to school for four-year bachelor’s degrees.

Men, in particular, tend to be drawn to the highly paid specialty fields within nursing. According to the Census Bureau, 41 percent of all nurse anesthetists — who make an average of $163,000 per year — are men.

And the Census found that a “glass escalator” has emerged even in a female-dominated profession. Despite comprising just 9 percent of all nurses, men tend to be promoted faster and earn more — $9,600 more, on average — than their female counterparts.

On an individual level, however, better pay isn’t the primary reason most nurses enter the profession.

“I don’t see many people lasting very long in this profession if they’re not motivated by caring for people,” said Dwight McBee, who worked his way up from an RN to director for customer experience at AtlantiCare. “That has to come first.”

Inspired to enter the profession after his sister’s death from sickle cell anemia, McBee, 37, of Barnegat Township, originally worked in the critical care unit. Despite his administrative role, he still performs rounds once a week to stay connected to patients.

“It’s not difficult for me to picture the patient as a relative or someone close to me,” he said. “From a male’s perspective, we are caregivers. You can see many examples of that outside of health care, so it makes sense to have males delivering care as nurses.”

On his first day on the job in 1991, Joseph Hardiman II said, he was “scared to death.” He was, and still is, the only male nurse delivering babies at AtlantiCare’s Center for Children.

“I kind of knew what to expect, but that fear — I channeled it into paying attention and anticipating what the doctor, the mom and the baby would need,” he said.

Now a veteran of the delivery room, Hardiman, 45, of Atlantic City, is still sensitive to the needs of his female patients. The most important part of his job is ensuring their comfort and dignity, he said.

However, the issue of Hardiman’s gender doesn’t come up nearly as often as most people think. Indeed, some of his patients have requested he deliver their second and third babies.

“Funny thing I found out is that they don’t really care if you’re male or female,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the patient.”

Krafft said it helped having a male mentor who helped guide him throughout his career. Today, Krafft serves a similar role for his students, both male and female.

“I try to be a role model for them,” he said. “I take students to clinicals at Cape Regional (Medical Center), where they see me with other staff and physicians, admitting patients.”

Dylan Nguyen, a 22-year-old Stockton nursing student, is one of the next generation of nurses. He grew up in a family of nurses and followed his aunt, sister, stepsister and sister-in-law into the profession.

“After high school, I was undecided, but seeing everyone in my family entering nursing, I decided to give it a try,” he said. “It turned out I liked it very much.”

His sister and his parents both supported his decision, but Nguyen didn’t fully appreciate his chosen profession until he was doing his clinicals.

One of the patients he encountered was a comatose man whose family wrestled with the decision to remove him from the ventilator.

“I had the chance to care for him for the last moments of his life, and he passed on very peacefully,” Nguyen said. “I was there to support a family, and that gives me a satisfying feeling.”

Male nurses are still occasionally the butt of jokes — case in point, the 2000 film “Meet the Parents,” in which Ben Stiller plays a put-upon nurse.

“Every male nurse cringed when that movie came out,” McBee said with a laugh.

Hardiman added: “The second (film, ‘Meet the Fockers,’) was pretty bad for me.”

But much of that stigma is gone in the real world and on the hospital floors where they work.

“When you tell someone that you’re a nurse, people get it,” McBee said. “People understand what that means now.”

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