Median Pay for Stenographers Falling Despite Demand?

The interpretation of statistics is something that fuels plenty of jobs and debates. From serious matters such as crime and the criminal justice system to industry niches such as futures trading, people are always seeking new ways to collect and describe data. The court reporting and stenotype services industry is no different. There are numerous market research reports on our $3 billion industry, along with the publishing of data from sources such as industry associations and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Due to the nature of our field, with over 70% of it being “freelance” according to the Ducker Report, these statistics vary a lot. Take, for example, the BLS’s current count of 21,300 court reporter jobs in 2020, with 500 jobs expected to be added 2020 to 2030.

Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 1, 2022.

Now compare that to about a year prior.

Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of June 21, 2021.

Does anyone think we had 15,700 jobs in 2021 and that number grew by about 6,000 in 2022? No. We must understand and accept that there’s some inaccuracy or margin of error here, the BLS can’t be 100% correct.

For the sake of completeness, let’s go back about a decade using the wayback machine, which shows past images of websites, and see what kind of changes the entry for court reporters had.

Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of June 20, 2020.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 3, 2019
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of October 14, 2018.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 6, 2017.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of June 28, 2016.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 21, 2015.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 4, 2014.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 8, 2013.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of June 15, 2012.

The BLS does seem to acknowledge the retirement wave we are expecting in the job outlook portion of its statistics, and mentions a potential 21,000 openings due to retirement.

Job outlook of court reporters from the BLS as of July 6, 2022.

Interestingly, 21,000 is 70% of 30,000. Ducker said 70% of reporters would retire over the next 20 years (2013 to 2033), and predicted a 2018 supply of reporters of 27,700, which is close enough to 30,000 for this comparison. The only issue I have with the numbers here is that they condense the time frame. Ducker predicted 70% of reporters retiring over 20 years, or an average of somewhere around 1,050 a year. This seems to assume all the retirements will take place over the next decade, when the reality is the forecasted retirements were spread over double that period of time.

The Court Reporting Industry Outlook 2013-2014 predicted that about 70 percent of court reporters would retire 2013 to 2033.

Otherwise, looking at the Bureau of Labor statistics numbers in isolation, they don’t really make sense to me. In 2012 there were 22,000 court reporter jobs and a gain of 3,100 jobs over 10 years (2010-2020). By June 28, 2016, only four years later, it was reported there were 20,800 jobs with a gain of 300 jobs over ten years (2014-2024). Going by the BLS, jobs reported 2012 to 2022, we lost over 28% of the jobs in this field. Our growth rate is far down from what it was in 2012 pre-shortage forecast. The BLS stats are really bleak.

But we cannot look at the BLS statistics in isolation. We must take other available industry statistics. Again, the Ducker Report, commissioned by the National Court Reporters Association in 2013, forecasted a 2018 supply of stenographers of 27,700 and a supply gap of about 4,000 court reporters.

Ducker Worldwide forecasts 2018 supply and demand for stenographers.

The Speech-to-Text Institute pretty much copied those numbers to make the case for why digital court reporting is required. They say we can’t fill the stenographer demand. That doesn’t appear to be mathematically true.

Illustration of stenographer supply and demand by Speech-to-Text Institute. Notably, the supply gap was not as bad as forecasted.

Reconciling the two sets of data is a nightmare. Are there around 27,000 court reporter jobs or 15,000? Are we adding 1,400 jobs over the next ten years or will there be over 22,000 jobs? Are we in demand or is our median pay falling? Some of this is explained by looking at retirements versus growth. But these things really matter, because ultimately, over-recruiting is going to lead to lower incomes and bad outcomes. There’s already one person out there whose experience with court reporting was so bad, they dedicated a Twitter to it. My goal is to avoid that kind of suffering for people. So I’m opening up an uncomfortable conversation. What if we reach a point where we are recruiting to fill a supply gap that’s on its way to being filled? Unless we start creating more opportunities by branching out and building demand for our services, some of our graduates may end up with nowhere to go. That’s a future that those of us deep into mentorship do not want for the people we guide. We need to start coming up with things that drive up demand if we want the number of stenographers to begin consistently increasing.

If we can’t get a handle on how many of us there are, we’re going to get mowed over every time someone comes out with a new agenda or misleading statistic. We are in a weird place politically because just about every player benefits by pushing the shortage. STTI, U.S. Legal, Veritext, and the digital court reporting brigade get to sell digital by stating the shortage is impossible™️ to solve. NCRA gets the increased volunteering and stenographic fervor that comes with everyone fighting against the digital menace™️ and against the untimely death of stenography™️. Schools get increased enrollment from our stenomania™️-style recruitment. Perhaps this is a pessimist’s point of view, but I’m left with the sense that even if I could show with 100% certainty that the shortage wasn’t as bad as forecasted, it wouldn’t really matter, because all of the major players would ignore it.

I write because I believe that prosperity flows from truth. When we see situations as they are and not as we want them to be, our combined commitment to excellence seizes the day. Our “gold standard” situation doesn’t arise merely from telling ourselves we’re the best, but from our human ability to be problem-solving machines. In order to be effective problem solvers, we must state the problem accurately. I am now of the belief that our falling median pay is a greater threat to our wonderful profession than the shortage, thanks largely to the initiatives that were created to confront the shortage, such as NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno, as well as hundreds of volunteers. I further believe there are steps that can be taken to address the issue, such as the collection and distribution of aggregated rate data, which the FTC says is legal, or an increase in the overall entrepreneurship, sales, and marketing of court reporters through education. Tools to help new reporters understand the business. These things would keep court reporters informed and marketable, help slow the rate at which newer people without ties to the existing market are taken advantage of, and surprise, attack the heart of the issue, pay disparity is killing our field.

If we do nothing, our association numbers will likely tumble as people fail to find the money for their annual membership during a time of soaring inflation and falling wages. Realtime is not a sustainable answer for the majority. There are fewer than 3,000 CRRs and CRCs combined. If we allow ourselves to be boxed into a world where only realtime is treated as valuable, we lose a significant percentage of the market share and field. Those kinds of losses are the true threat to our sustainability, considering they would come atop the loss in jobs and growth reported by the BLS.

This is not a doom-and-gloom scenario though. Recognizing the challenges ahead will allow us to meet them. For my part in it, I have recently started a reporting firm and hired an operations manager to help bring in business. If I am able to bootstrap this operation successfully, I’ll be doing my part to raise those median wages while also saving consumers money. Even in the worst case scenario, I’ll learn lessons I can pass to the next entrepreneur, and this timeless profession will endure.