This story appears in the January 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
by Laurie A. Szpot
with additional reporting by Kurt Chandler, Howie Magner, Matthew Reddin, and Evan Solochek.
Salaries are sexy. There’s a voyeuristic appeal to finding out what our boss or neighbor, friend or foe is making. It’s as if that weekly slip of paper is the essence of one’s worth as a person. How much we make is a status symbol – the more the better – and we hold these figures close for fear we might not measure up to our peers. Yet we’d love to know what they’re making.
Everything is relative when it comes to salaries. Check the Bureau of Labor Statistics and you might think lawyers here are doing well, with an average salary of $115,000. That is, until you look at lawyers nationally, who average $129,020. Ah, our poor local attorneys. By contrast, metro-area chiropractors are raking in an average salary of $121,030, far ahead of their national peers at $80,390. Why such differences? Hard to say.
Or take the average salary of $44,080 in the Milwaukee metro area. That’s about $2,200 more than the average in Cleveland and Indianapolis. So we’re doing great, right? But it’s about $4,700 less than the average in Chicago and Minneapolis. Grrr.
Once you start playing this game, it seems like you can never win. Since Milwaukee Magazine last ran a feature on salaries in January 2006, the economy has slumped and average wages, both here and nationally, have been pretty stagnant, the increases limping along at the pace of inflation. Not so good for our self-worth.
Yet many of the Milwaukee workers we interviewed reject the idea that it’s all about your salary. They talked instead about the satisfactions of the job.
“Why do something so you can enjoy two weeks a year on vacation instead of liking what you do every day?” asks Anne Kingsbury, who makes a less-than-regal $37,000 as executive director of Woodland Pattern Book Center. Kingsbury spends her life meeting great authors and artists, enjoying and promoting their work, and that clearly matters more to her than a salary that’s below the average Milwaukee compensation.
Steve Fronk, director of emergency management and homeland security for the city of Milwaukee, is obviously doing better than Kingsbury, with a salary of $86,411. But he, too, is more concerned about what he does than what he earns.
“The opportunity to do something you actually see benefiting the community is important,” he says. After the flood of July 2010, his office coordinated applications for assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. To date, more than 30,000 local individuals and small businesses in Milwaukee have applied for funds totaling $45 million. “You feel like you can make a difference,” Fronk says.
Somewhat on the opposite end of the spectrum are parking checkers. They make a difference, all right, but are often vilified for the results. Yet Jennifer Holter, a parking enforcement supervisor, is passionate and downright obsessive about her job.
“I am a parking geek, as people will tell you,” she says. “When I go on vacation, I look at their laws. I check out the parking checkers. I like to look at the handicap violators. I take my work with me everywhere because I find it interesting.”
Holter, who makes $56,321, started working for the city in 1986 as a parking checker and eventually moved up to supervisor. Is she paid enough? “If they paid me twice this, yeah, I’d be happy. But as long as I can afford to go out and have steak, I’m making enough.