The Rising Shortage of Stenographers

30 Apr 2015 12:30 PM | Lynette Pitt (Administrator)

The Rising Shortage of Stenographers

A stenographer is a very special type of person.  Most have the ability to write at over 225 words per minute, just part of what makes stenographic reporting the most popular choice for documenting depositions. Operating a steno machine is more akin to playing a piano than typing on a computer keyboard.  Contrary to common belief, stenographers don’t type much of anything at a deposition.  They combine phonetic sounds into strokes that are then interpreted by Computer Aided Transcription (CAT) software.  The result is a highly accurate and legally relevant document from a proceeding.  

To this day, stenography is the only method of record keeping that can attain near perfect accuracy while providing a fully readable, searchable, and certifiable transcript as a proceeding is happening.  Known as realtime court reporting, attorneys are able to annotate, bookmark, and review live testimony during the deposition. Realtime court reporting provides parties with a clear and instant understanding of testimony without having to wait for a final copy weeks later.  

  • Schools Shut Doors on Stenographers

Because of the high level of proficiency required to be a stenographer, various reports indicate that only 5% - 10% of court reporting students ever make it to graduation.  Part of the reason for this is that the price of a steno machine, CAT software, and ongoing support and maintenance can reach nearly $10,000, and the cost of tuition, books, and room and board can easily double that.  However, graduation rates tell only half of the story.  The more immediate and impactful change has been the decline in enrollment rates at court reporter schools across America.  This phenomenon has helped contribute to the beginning of a dangerous cycle for the court reporting industry.  As fewer and fewer students enroll, schools have been forced to close their doors, leaving even less opportunity for the industry to recruit young blood.  With the current average age of stenographers at over 50 years old, all members of the court reporting community have taken notice.

  • National Association Investigates Shortage

The current predicament led the National Court Reporters Association to probe further, first to confirm the issues and second to combat them. In 2014, the NCRA released the first ever Court Reporting Industry Outlook Study with the help of Ducker Worldwide, a leading research and consulting firm.  After analyzing the data, the consulting firm reported back an optimistic outlook on some relatively grim data.  While the current supply of stenographers is believed to be balanced nationwide, regional shortages have already begun to emerge. 

The study confirmed that retirement rates are on the rise and graduation rates have been steadily declining for at least two decades.  The report forecasted that more than 5,500 additional stenographers will be needed by 2018 and at the time of the report, only 2,500 students were currently enrolled nationwide.  Based on this outlook, the NCRA needed to act swiftly and decisively to turn the tide.

  • Youth Targeted in Marketing Mission

Armed with the industry statistics provided by Ducker Worldwide, the NCRA launched the Take Note campaign.  With the assistance of BowStern, a well-known marketing and public relations firm, the Take Note campaign was launched with the primary focus of driving interest to court reporting among the youth of America.  With major spots on programs such as Fox and Friends and a front page article in The Wall Street Journal, the NCRA acknowledged that the time to act is now and it was willing to put real advertising dollars toward its cause. 

  • Digital Court Recording Emerges as Viable Alternative

While the verdict is still out on the success of the Take Note campaign, court reporting companies are beginning to investigate and pilot alternative methods of capturing the official record.  The early winner among the alternatives to stenography thus far is known as digital court recording. Digital court recording is the use of digital audio and video equipment to capture a proceeding.  The audio is then sent to a legal transcriber (often a stenographer) who then creates the verbatim transcript.

Digital court recording is not an exact replacement for stenography, however it is a perfectly acceptable method for a high percentage of depositions. While digital court recording does not have the full suite of offerings of stenography, there have been major strides for innovation and positive change.  Services that weren’t offered in the beginning of digital court recording are now available, such as read backs during a proceeding.  Additionally, as a replacement for rough drafts, many digital court recorders offer a full copy of the deposition audio. 

Freelance digital court recording has developed its first legs in states like Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oregon.  Existing court reporting firms are initially using the digital alternative to fill in gaps for last minute depositions and depositions that may not be profitable enough for a traditional stenographer.  In small pockets around the country, pure-play digital court recording firms have even begun sprouting up where shortages are more prominent.  As for the long-term success of digital court recording, it will largely be determined by the industry’s ability to enroll and graduate stenographers.

  • Time Will Tell

Will the foresight of the NCRA lead to success at finding, training, and developing new stenographers from Generations Y and Z? Many believe this will be the case but only time will tell.  In the meantime, the world of stenography can hang its hat on a 96% market share and the ability to provide services such as realtime reporting that are unmatched by any other form of record keeping. 

Written by Tony Wright 

CaseWorks is a full-service court reporting, legal videography, and video conferencing company that has been serving the legal community of North Carolina for over 25 years.  With 9 offices located throughout the state, and through its association with the National Network of Reporting Companies, CaseWorks is well-positioned to serve clients both in-state and around the country while delivering a level of personal service that is unmatched.  

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