Jay Hindman, a burly guy with bulging forearms and a buzz haircut, would look perfectly comfortable behind the wheel of a forklift.
And in his past life he once operated heavy machinery.
But now Hindman, 44, is engaged in a more delicate mission. He is a registered nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, tending to the planet's tiniest, most fragile human beings.
Hindman is one of a growing number of men who have rejected the "pink collar" label attached to nursing. Although they remain a minority, more men are entering the field, and hospitals are actively recruiting them.
"The image of nursing is changing," said Kathy Green, nurse manager of patient-care recruitment for the University of California, Davis, Medical Center. "Nurses no longer are viewed as handmaidens to doctors."
They also earn good salaries. Registered nurses working at California hospitals earn starting salaries near $70,000, said Robyn Nelson, chair of the division of nursing at California State University, Sacramento.
The result has been a surge in the number of men entering the profession. According to the most recent records from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 5.4 percent of the nation's registered nurses are male, compared with just 2.7 percent in 1980.
"I'm not sure it will be 50/50 anytime soon," said Joanne Spetz, of the Center for California Health Work Force Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. "But if we continue to see wage increases and increasing demand, it's hard to imagine nursing not becoming more gender-equal."
Hindman is among eight men on a staff of 115 registered nurses who care for sick and premature babies. They care for parents as well -- teaching them, counseling them and occasionally crying with them.
It is stressful but satisfying work, the nurses said.
"The payoff is when someone approaches you and thanks you for saving the life of their baby, or for helping their baby to grow and develop," said Keith Hoerman, assistant manager of the unit in Sacramento, Calif.
Hoerman has been featured in a recruitment video, and hospitals and other groups across the country have launched similar efforts to attract men to nursing. The Oklahoma Nurses Assn. is producing a calendar featuring "Men in Oklahoma Nursing." In Oregon, an ad campaign features men gripping snowboards, wearing martial-arts gear and asking, "Are You Man Enough to Be a Nurse?"
Statistics show that there is a nationwide nursing shortage that is expected to grow as baby boomers age. In 2000, 30 states reported a shortage of registered nurses, and 44 plus the District of Columbia predict shortages by 2020.
Eric Favero, 45, has a business degree, but found greater fulfillment in nursing.
"Having such a small being so totally dependent on you is a wonderful thing," he said. "I also like being something of a role model for the fathers. When they see a guy like me being very comfortable with a tiny baby, they pick up on it."