There is a small, loud contingent in the private sector that describes our stenographer shortage as mathematically impossible to solve. Years ago, the Court Reporting Industry Outlook by Ducker Worldwide, in a nutshell, forecasted the demand of stenographic reporters eclipsing the supply of stenographic reporters. At that point in the 2013-2014 report it was forecasted that about 70 percent of existing reporters would retire over the next 20 years. It was forecasted that in 2018 there would be a gap of about 5,500 court reporters due to increased demand and retirements. In a breakdown by state, it was clear that California, Texas, Illinois, and New York would have it the hardest, but the prediction was a gap of at least 100 reporters in several states by 2018.
This is but one of few bold arguments put out by digital recording proponents as to why the modality of taking the record must change away from stenographic reporting. As reporters and committees like NCRA Strong started to push back against the myth that digital was better or cheaper, and developed resources to help others explain the truth, the stenographer shortage became the last bastion of hope for recording equipment to take reporter seats.
It’s a simple message that’s easy to digest: “It takes too long to train stenographers and the failure rate is too high, therefore we must change.” This argument is even embraced by CSRs working for larger agencies that have actively promoted digital reporting as the way forward, such as Veritext or US Legal. I take umbrage with this simple message because it’s a lie. This idea that there is nothing we can do is a lie by omission, and it ignores any and all progress we’ve made in recruitment. Since the Ducker Report, Open Steno has expanded exponentially in introducing stenography and free resources to learn it to people all over the world. Its Discord channel continues to grow and has hundreds of users online each day.
Also since the Ducker Report, NCRA A to Z was born. Project Steno began heavy recruitment activity. Independent actors such as Allison Hall have worked in their own communities to get programs started and flourishing. Again, all things generally ignored by the we-must-record crowd. It’s only business, right? If they can’t fill the seats, it’s not their fault! But it’s painfully obvious that digital recording proponents are not attempting to build interest in stenographic reporting. We are a community, and some members of our community are obsessed with spouting the shameful idea that there’s just nothing that can be done while watching everyone else do.
But even those of us who know all about the shortage and have worked in some capacity to fix it have overlooked some important industry comparisons. In the tech world, there’s a forecasted need of some 1.4 million workers and an expected graduation of 400,000 workers. If our 5,000-person shortage is mathematically impossible to solve then tech must be absolutely doomed, right? It takes a whole four years to get a computer science degree! Time to replace all the programmers with robots, right? Nope. Instead, the argument is made to look at the number of self-taught people or people that do not have a traditional degree. The argument is made that programmers should be paid more to entice workers. Even in fields of “unskilled workers”, when there is a shortage, they don’t sit around and whine about there being nothing they can do, they jack up the prices to reflect demand.
Compare this to our field, where freelance reporters in New York are currently working for less than 1991 rates adjusted for inflation and companies still aren’t happy. At a certain point, there’s simply no more we can give. We’d each do better taking our own customers and binding our own transcripts than continue to forfeit large percentages of our money just so we don’t have to handle clients. To illustrate this better, the following is a chart for the average US worker hourly pay adjusted for inflation.
If we were to have an identical chart for reporting in New York, for reporters making under $5.50 a page on their original, the number would be decreasing. We’re not just behind the average US hourly worker, we are steadily losing ground and the gap is widening. It’s not really surprising we’re having trouble filling seats. It’s good money for what we do, but the great money in the private sector has been quietly locked behind roughs and realtime, forcing reporters to work harder and write more to have the same buying power.
The above notes on pay come with a caveat. I’m not a stupid man. I know the money in this field comes from the copy sales. I know that’s very unlikely to change in the near future. But for an honest comparison, I’ve examined the original prices, and if the original prices are that deflated, reporters have to ask themselves if copy rates have budged when adjusted for inflation, and there’s no evidence to suggest they have.
So when we are discussing shortage, I hope there are four points everyone will remember and educate fellow reporters on when they buy the line that there’s nothing we can do.
1. The number of self-taught reporters is not counted, making our shortage forecast larger than it is.
2. There are many more programs and resources for people who want to learn about stenography today than there were when the stenographer shortage was forecasted. Some examples include NCRA A to Z, Open Steno, and Project Steno.
3. Companies that genuinely care about the shortage can directly impact it by promoting steno, relaxing deadlines, or increasing reporter pay, which is in line with other industries.
4. With an estimated 30,000 stenographers, if we each spent an hour a year on recruitment activity, it would be the equivalent of 82 hours of recruitment a day, far more time than any company is spending promoting or recruiting for other modalities.