The Facebook message arrived to me during dinner, not long after we had launched the Speech to Text Institute: “Just reaching out to let you know that my low, low opinion of you and your character still stands. Every cent wasted on your NCRA salary was two cents too much. Gawd you are just pathetic.”
As problems go, this was a small one with a particularly simple solution. I wrote a sarcastic response and then blocked the person from sending me any more messages.
I knew that when we founded STTI two years ago that it was inevitable that I would take some criticism from certain circles of the court reporting community. I did two tours of work at NCRA – the first from 1992 to 1995; the second from 2009 through 2015. Across those nine years, I got a front-row seat for the passion that stenographers bring to their work. It is a small, close-knit profession that connected over the common experience of developing and possessing the unique, heard-earned skill of shorthand reporting. It is a skill that engenders within its ranks a fierce and understandable pride and a sense of duty that both its history and its practice must be preserved and protected.
But neither fierce pride nor a sense of duty is an acceptable substitute for facts. And there are two key facts that are indisputable and that are compelling the court reporting industry to adapt:
- The number of stenographic court reporters has steadily, but significantly declined, a decline that is mathematically certain to exacerbate as more than 1,100 stenographers, on average, retire each year while no more than about 200 new reporters emerge from school; and
- The capabilities of non-steno technologies and corresponding practitioners are able to meet the threshold level of quality necessary to meet the high standard necessary for creating the legal record.
Let me state unequivocally at this point that I personally and the Speech to Text Institute organizationally are 100% pro-steno. STTI represents the entire court reporting industry, which includes stenography, which includes digital reporting, and which includes voice writing and other emerging technologies as they prove capable of meeting the standard of creating an accurate, verbatim transcript.
Those who would suggest that accepting the realities facing the industry and the marketplace are turning their backs on fellow stenographers are creating a false divide. Like the nice person who Facebook messaged me during dinner to call me pathetic, their interest is to divide the court reporting industry, labeling those who dare to accept reality as traitors and liars. They position voice writing, digital reporting, and ASR as their enemies. And they peddle in lies, distortions, and insults because they know that it’s easier to exploit their fellow stenographers with anger and fear than with facts.
Here are the facts:
- Back in the mid-1990s there were somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000 stenographers in the marketplace. Today there are fewer than 25,000.
- By 2033 – just 12 years from now – the number of stenographers will drop to less than 14,000.
- The Ducker Report predicted that the gap between supply and demand of stenographers would be 5,500 by 2018. With retirements and not enough backfill, that supply gap has widened to about 8,260 in 2021.
- Even granting a generous 10% graduation rate from stenography schools, it would take the enrollment of more than 82,000 students to fill the supply gap with stenographers alone.
- Right now there are no more than 2,500 stenography students enrolled in court reporting school, based on the last available numbers provided by NCRA.
- In a survey of court reporting firm owners fielded by STTI in April of this year, 74% of firms indicated they are experiencing at least some impact from the steno shortage – with 41% indicating they are experiencing “some impact” and 33% indicating they are experiencing “significant impact.”
Let me also present you with some additional data points that fall more into the anecdotal variety. Earlier this year, STTI conducted an ad hoc survey of court reporting schools in advance of an education summit we held in April. One of the questions we asked of the participating schools was how many stenographers the programs had graduated over the previous five years. Among the eight stenography schools that responded to the survey, here are the number of graduates they had produced: five, five, three, one, five, 25, 315, and three. Notwithstanding the one school that graduated a whopping 315 stenographers – and kudos to that school – there are six separate schools that average one or fewer graduates every year.
I know it’s become popular in certain circles to poke holes in research and analysis, substituting individual views and experiences that support personal agendas for studies that present facts and statistics. To those I offer the perspective of the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who famously said: “You are entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
Absolutely none of this is a knock on stenographers. In fact, it’s sort of the opposite; it’s acknowledgment of the significant achievement it takes to meet threshold speeds to serve as a court reporter.
But you know who else are good? Trained voice writers. Trained digital reporters and transcribers. And a growing array of firms, schools, and technology providers that are adapting to the marketplace realities and creating solutions designed to do what is most important – to protect the quality of the legal record.
There’s room for everyone within STTI who wishes to play a constructive role in setting the standards for an evolving industry.
If you believe the solutions are more complicated than “steno is good, digital and voice are bad” … if you accept facts even when they don’t align with what you wish to be true … if you’d like to help firm owners and schools and others adjust to the new marketplace reality … if you’re tired of the negativity, rancor, and the false divide … if you want to be part of a constructive conversation … and, above all else, if you believe that the quality of the legal record is what matters most of all … then let me know. My email is [email protected].
Just maybe don’t message me during dinner this time.