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.

Workers Rights

Here on Stenonymous we have explored many different things related to freelancing and stenographic employment. As a quick recap for those that have trouble navigating the site, we’ve discussed turnaround times and how they have gone from 30 days to 5 with no extra money involved. We’ve discussed the Beginner’s Trap and freelance loyalty, which is all about how you must be loyal to yourself to earn a better income. We’ve brought out the need to build skills that make you marketable. We have admitted the power of a contract and thought about what should go into a rate sheet. We’ve gotten into billing, anticontracting, form SS8, and what it means to be an independent contractor. We have explained why we can’t discuss rates, and then we have discussed rates. We even put out other people’s rates.

Now it’s time for something a little different. I would like people to seriously consider a dilemma the field finds itself in. As independent contractors, we are consistently in a bind of being afraid to discuss rates thanks to antitrust concerns. This fear is probably at times a little overblown, but it causes us to be silent and to act very content even when things are not going well. Indeed, our biggest organizations, our NCRAs and NYSCRAs are trapped in the position of being unable to serve as forums for rate discussions due to liability concerns. All this is happening while some of our biggest purchasers are making a push from stenographic reporting to digital recording. I think it is time to ask ourselves what we actually get out of the independent contractor label. It’s out there that employers can save up to 30 percent by labeling employees as independent contractors. It’s out there that about 20 percent of employees are misclassified. Succinctly, the gig economy is bad for workers. Employers are doing their best to eliminate the cost of workers compensation and unemployment. These are serious benefits, worth thousands of dollars, that independent contractors do not get. Independent contractors have little to no federal protection from otherwise illegal discrimination and need to go to small claims instead of Department of Labor if we go unpaid. Employees are also entitled to FMLA leave, and in New York, family leave laws. Employees have the right to unionize and the employer is forced to enter good-faith negotiation with the employee union. Under today’s law in New York, the only way to take any of these benefits, if you are a commission employee misclassified as an independent contractor, is to dispute the issue on a case-by-case basis. How many people have the guts to do that?

We’re not even getting the benefits of being independent contractors, which would be the write-offs, the ability to hire other workers, and the ability to set our own hours. Think about it. How many of us in the freelance sector print our own transcripts or have consistent business write-offs? Yes, it is nice to write-off the occasional mailing fee, but the agencies have largely taken up any function that gets a write-off except for your starting equipment fee. Ironically, I have more write-offs as an employee with the state, thanks to my 1099 income, than I ever did as a freelancer. The ability to hire other workers? Go ahead and try sending someone who isn’t you to a deposition. See how many times you can do that before they stop sending you work. When I call my plumber, I don’t get to choose who he or she sends. Setting your own hours? Don’t know about everyone else, but I know that I got deposition forms that said please arrive early and gave me a start time. My hours were more or less set by the work, which really isn’t that much different from your boss telling you I need you at 10 tomorrow. We live in America, and people are entitled to refuse work any day they feel like, it’s not something we need the mantle of independent contractor for.

From New York to California independent contractors are beginning to challenge their status or realize the raw deal. California came out with a simplified three-part test for independent contractors. Maybe we should have a serious discussion about whether the title is worth keeping for most of us. Maybe we should talk about new laws and enforcement for independent contractors in New York.

It’s absolutely ludicrous to me that we box ourselves into a position where “freelancers” who are meted work, have deadlines dictated to them, are told when to arrive, what to bring, and disciplined via withholding work when deadlines are slipped, defend this model. The numbers don’t lie. Turnaround times are six times faster. Rates haven’t risen with inflation. Independent contractors save employers 30 percent. What could you do with a 30 percent raise? Hell, what could you do with a 10 percent raise? I mean, I have to go back to the article where I calculated out 1000 different rates. If you’re the breadwinner, unless you’re making at least $5.50 a page average, you’re working nights and weekends to make ends meet. The pricing structure doesn’t even need to change. The only thing that would have to change is agencies would have to pay minimum wage if your page rate didn’t give you at least minimum wage. Guess what? That’ll basically never happen. Imagine a world where you go take a deposition for an hour and only make 20 pages. Now imagine you transcribe for one hour. Your page rate is $3.25. $65 for two hours. Not a great rate but realistically what my generation was lowballed with. Way above minimum wage. We’re specialized workers, we deserve it.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that in this market and under these circumstances the losers are the independent contractors. There are no substantial gains to being independent contractors, and anyone with private clients could just continue their private clients as a separate business entity. My opinion is malleable and I’m open to debate, but beyond the shallow arguments of we have always been independent contractors and we buy our own equipment, I’ve heard precious little that impresses me. You know who else buys their own equipment? Teachers.

Maybe it’s time for a swap. Maybe it’s time for our trade organizations to shift to labor unions. At the very least, it’s time to talk about these issues in public and consider what can be better.

EDIT. On February 11, 2019, I discovered this JCR article which appears to have a different viewpoint than my own but also talks about the issue. I feel it is important, when possible, to give as much information as possible, so please feel free to review that and join the discussion.