What’s in a Name? For Some Court Reporters, Misconceptions

by Francesca Fontana | Wall Street Journal

A court reporter types on a stenography machine in a Macon County circuit courtroom in Decatur, Ill., in July 2013. Court reporting, which includes work beyond the courts, is facing a shortage of workers. PHOTO: DANNY DAMIANI/HERALD & REVIEW/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A court reporter types on a stenography machine in a Macon County circuit courtroom in Decatur, Ill., in July 2013. Court reporting, which includes work beyond the courts, is facing a shortage of workers. PHOTO: DANNY DAMIANI/HERALD & REVIEW/ASSOCIATED PRESS

One of the nation’s highest-paying jobs that doesn’t require a college degree is facing a shortage of workers. Part of the problem: An ill-fitting moniker.

Court reporters do more than just transcribe legal proceedings for courts or legislatures, said Nativa Wood, president of the National Court Reporters Association. They also caption broadcast television shows and public and school events for the hearing-impaired, as well as providing real-time transcripts for everything from business meetings to legal depositions.

The field, which many like to date back to ancient scribes, requires training in typing as many as 225 words a minute on a stenotype machine, a chorded keyboard used to transcribe spoken word into shorthand. Students can learn to use the machine in programs offered by trade schools and community colleges.

Depending on the industry, their experience and the amount of work they take on, court reporters can make upward of $95,000 a year. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the median annual pay for court reporters in 2016 was $51,320. Median pay for all high-school graduates without further education, meanwhile, has hovered around $30,000 over the past several years, according to the National Center for Education.

Still, Ms. Wood says the National Court Reporters Association has struggled to attract young workers, hurt by the preconception that court reporting is an antiquated job.

Ducker Worldwide, a Troy, Mich.-based global consulting and research firm, estimates that the aging pool of current court reporters, plus declining enrollment rates in training programs, will create a shortfall of nearly 5,500 positions by 2018.

Ms. Wood says freelance stenographers are currently in such high demand that some have been forced to put clients on waiting lists, but adds that she hasn’t heard of any impact on businesses or government.

One solution to attracting more people to the field, Ms. Wood says, is to retire the name “court reporter” and adopt a new one. “Ideally, I believe it should reflect our use of technology and accurately represent the many career paths that can be undertaken once you learn the stenographic machine,” said Ms. Wood. She hasn’t come up with any alternatives yet.