The pay may be low, but aah, the smell of jet fuel in the morning
Roger Skorepa last year left a better salary at a private security contractor to take the lowest base wage that Kansas City government offers full-time employees.
That’s $12.69 an hour. He was pulling in four bucks more an hour before, and he could be earning more stacking shelves at Costco.
But his city work is rather vital: Keep the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport safe overnight.
Skorepa, 27, is a graveyard-shift security guard with a four-year college degree in aviation management.
“This job would be my best chance at building a path toward a career in aviation,” he said. “So I made the sacrifice.”
The day he made that point, driving around the airport in search of wayward wildlife and other hazards, the online retail titan Amazon made headlines announcing it would hike wages to no less than $15 per hour.
A strong economy and robust job market has every municipality thinking of the Roger Skorepas they badly want to hire. But if he can earn $5,000 more next year dropping off packages for Amazon, why should he work for the taxpaying public?
He has his reasons — personal goals Skorepa agreed to share even after The Star let him know that, dude, your pay stinks compared to the salaries of 4,300 fellow city workers.
He and only 10 other full-timers earn less than $14 per hour. Most are “bus operator trainees” and security guards.
The Star’s interest turned to the bottom end of the municipal pay scale after reporting in 2017 about the top end. A records request revealed that several of the highest-paid city employees worked for the fire department, with one firefighter/paramedic making more than $230,000 the previous fiscal year, mostly from overtime pay.
For Skorepa, the lure clearly isn’t the pay. It isn’t even being a guard. The lure is “the organized chaos of an airport,” he said.
“From a management standpoint it’s very much organized. From a traveler’s standpoint, it’s chaos.”
And he admits to liking the smell of jet fuel.
Joe McBride, spokesman for Kansas City’s aviation department, admires Skorepa’s outlook. Some of it comes from Skorepa’s dad, Steve, who has worked around runways his adult life. Steve Skorepa manages the Ambassador Building at Kansas City International Airport, where another son, David, also works as a safety officer.
David “started out there as a delivery guy, sort of on the same track as Roger,” McBride said. “You get what you can just to get a foot in the door.”
Of the three Skorepa men, Roger has the loneliest gig.
He arrives at downtown airport around midnight. He climbs into a white Ford Explorer marked “SECURITY” and wheels around the 695-acre facility at a top speed of 35 mph. Much of the job’s purpose is “just to be seen,” he said.
His eyes scan for things that would be hard to spot even in daylight — a possum sniffing around a hangar, any slight opening amid miles of fencing, or what aviation people call FOD, “foreign object debris.”
A FOD could be a bottle, a bunny or any type of trash blown in from the highway. But commonly it’s of the tiny variety that Skorepa spotted on a recent patrol: He hopped out of the Explorer to pick up a cigar-sized chunk of tar that had broken away from the crack sealant on a taxiway.
“That could get sucked up and take out a jet engine,” noted airport spokesman McBride.
Cities and wages
The minimum wage in Missouri is $7.85 per hour.
A November ballot issue seeks to raise that to $12 by 2023 — still 69 cents below than what Kansas City pays the bottom rung of full-time municipal employees.
Like most public entities in the region, Kansas City will extend its lowest wages to seasonal help — lifeguards, park mowers and the like.
But to hire and retain full-time help, plus provide benefits, cities everywhere have been trying keep pace with wages that have risen the last two years at major companies such as Walmart (now $11/hour) and Costco ($14/hour).
The Lee’s Summit City Council in March approved a $5.5 million boost in staff salaries, even though the source of the revenue was uncertain. Overland Park recently began offering a $3,500 signing bonus to new police officers. Other municipalities have commissioned studies comparing public wages across the region.
“For a lot of jobs in the public sector, it’s difficult for cities to hire and retain especially at the low end of the pay scale,” said Neil Reichenberg, executive director of International Public Management Association for Human Resources.
“That wasn’t the case a few years ago,” he said. “Now, if you’re paying someone in public works $12 an hour and they can get $13 from a company across the street, why would they stay?”
Olathe’s lowest wage for a full-time court clerk is just above that, $13.18.
“As much as you’d like to offer more, we’re local government — accountable to taxpayers,” said city spokesman Tim Danneberg.
Still, as Roger Skorepa knows, the most promising flight path to one day managing an airport is through some portal of government.
An airport career
The other day, Skorepa spotted the carcass of a barn owl on a runway intersection.
He radioed the tower. Got permission to cross the wide painted line to enter the runway. He picked up the dead owl using a roll of paper towels he keeps in the back seat.
The Explorer’s cargo area holds a fire extinguisher, a tool kit and flares for chasing wildlife away from air traffic zones.
“Our main focus is the safety and security of people in the airport,” Skorepa said.
He looks the part: short-cropped hair, blue uniform shirt with a badge, walkie-talkies hanging from the waist, buffed-up black shoes.
Yet in his soul, Skorepa is less a guard than an aviation disciple. He graduated from University of Central Missouri in 2013 having studied aerodynamics, aviation accidents, the language of flight and the management of airport operations.
He left a company that contracts for airport checkpoint services “to follow in Dad’s footsteps” through local government, Skorepa said. He recalled many air shows the family attended before and after Dad transferred from the Spirit of St. Louis Airport, owned by St. Louis County, to KCI.
Agreeing to work the night shift at Wheeler airport bumped up Skorepa’s pay five bucks a day. He’ll make somewhere in the mid-$20,000s this year.
Sharing his apartment with a roommate — about $450 each — allows him get by without much financial struggle. He is lean, cooks for himself, and his hours don’t allow for late-night carousing. “No complaints,” he’ll say.
He is earning twice the poverty level for an individual, after all. And he’s making a bit more than the living wage that Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates Kansas City residents need to afford basic needs. Here, that “minimum subsistence wage,” as the university calls it, is $11.05 per hour for a single adult.
He’ll likely rise higher in pay at his one-year evaluation in November.
Meantime, Roger Skorepa will patrol overnight to keep the runways and skies safe, the occasional vagrants at bay. And once in a while, to have a story to share with friends.
Like the day in September when pop star Taylor Swift and her entourage landed before a performance at Arrowhead Stadium.
Skorepa’s assignment was to position the Explorer with red and blue lights flashing, allowing the Swift team’s bus to exit free from gawker interference.
He did so with firm-jawed success — but without catching a glimpse of Swift.