By Jim Cudahy, CAE, Executive Director, Speech to Text Institute (STTI)
As they say, the first step in solving any problem is first to acknowledge the problem.
Let’s begin with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which calculated in May 2018 that the number of court reporters had declined by almost 20 percent over three years to 14,500. I will tell you that I have always been dubious of BLS numbers in this industry because when I worked at NCRA, we always felt the BLS number for court reporters was too high. That’s probably because the BLS was counting something other than stenographers in its calculation while NCRA was not (i.e. voice writers and digital reporters). So, while I don’t put a lot of stock in the BLS number, it doesn’t diminish our problem.
I’d suggest that the population of stenographers that NCRA’s Ducker Report predicted there would be in 2018 – 27,700 – is about right. Let’s remember, though, that the 27,700 number was to coincide with a marketplace demand for stenographers of 33,200. That famously was to create a gap between supply and demand of 5,500. Our own calculations at the Speech-to-Text Institute (STTI) have the population of stenographers declining to 23,100 by 2023 and, then, to 17,260 by 2028, this as market demand swells to nearly 36,000.
So, yes, it’s a problem, and one that will grow worse. It also won’t be solved with a single solution or by wishing it away. Instead, solving the problem will require a cooperative, integrated approach, particularly if we collectively are going to pay more than lip service to the sworn, uncompromising duty of this industry – protecting the integrity of the legal record.
In other words, to simply suggest that we should try harder to “find more stenographers” as the single answer to solve the problem is to neglect the sworn, uncompromising duty of this industry.
You therefore might be surprised at my first suggestion to solve the problem.
- Find More Stenographers
What seems like the simplest answer is the hardest to accomplish, but it nonetheless should continue in earnest. But we need to do the math. With an overall stenography graduation rate that is less than 10 percent, you’d need to recruit more than 110,000 new students just to fill the stenographer shortage that will swell to more than 11,000 in four short years. Meanwhile, estimates put the total number of stenography students in the U.S. at no more than 2,500. Still, machine stenography will remain in significant demand, so efforts underway to recruit more stenography students should continue as an important component of the solution.
- Make Wider Use of the Current Stenographer Population
First, firms and courts should fully exploit technology to enable remote reporting. Second, stenographers should engage scopists and proofreaders whenever possible so that more of their time is spent in legal proceedings and less time is spent with their noses in transcripts.
- Spread the Word about Voice Writing
The reality is that voice writing students are 10 times more likely to graduate than stenography students and in considerably less time. Voice writers also emerge with capability that meets or exceeds that of their entry-level stenographer counterparts. But there currently aren’t enough voice writers or voice writing students to make much of a dent in the marketplace supply gap either, so one part of the solution should be a large-scale awareness campaign to promote voice writing to prospective students.
- Embrace the Capabilities of Digital Reporting
Aside from streaming real time, properly trained digital reporters are professionals with the knowledge and capability to deliver services that can approach or equal stenographers and voice writers. Professional monitoring by reporters, fully trained in the rules of legal procedure, is critical. Qualified, trained professionals—to include stenographers—then are responsible for transcribing audio testimony to produce verbatim transcripts. Digital reporters and transcribers also emerge from training programs ten times more frequently than stenography students, on a timeline that is months rather than years. However fortuitous that might be given the stenographer shortage, recruitment and training of thousands of digital reporters and transcribers won’t happen magically nor will integration of digital into traditionally steno-centric business models. Hence, the need to…
- Work Cooperatively to Create Blended Solutions
When it comes to recruitment and training of professionals, setting appropriate professional standards, and orienting a marketplace to the changes taking place in the court reporting/speech-to-text business, the solutions can and must be integrated. Already, some schools are leading the way, adopting integrated programs and curricula for voice writing and digital reporting in parallel with stenography. Also, traditional stenography firms are adding digital reporters and voice writers to their workforce in order to meet growing demand for their services amid the stenographer shortage.
Keep in mind that most courts have work with blended solutions for capturing the legal record, so that experience can be leveraged in the application of digital reporting to the deposition side of the market. So, there also is a massive library of wisdom and experience present among digital reporters, voice writers, stenographers and legal videographers as we work toward a more integrated marketplace.
No one knows exactly what the speech-to-text industry will look like in ten years, but one thing is certain: it will look entirely different than it does today including the use of new technologies and blended models. That is part of the rationale for STTI. For more information: