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.