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As Americans overloaded with student debt question the value of a college degree, training for one high-paying profession begging for employees costs relatively little.
"There is going to be a demand, and a need, for at least 5,500 new positions over the next three to five coming years," said Sarah Nageotte, president of the National Court Reporters Association. Fifteen percent of the industry is poised to retire. Nageotte said a lot of people are not even aware the career still exists.
Court reporting not only exists, it's expanding.
Most new reporting jobs are outside the courtroom, doing depositions or closed captioning. There is a new federal initiative to provide captioning services to hearing-impaired students. The pay for those jobs can range from $35 an hour up into six figures. One current opening for a court reporter in San Francisco starts above $100,000, plus benefits.
"It's absolutely a growth industry," said Margaret Ortiz, who runs the court reporting program at West Valley College in Saratoga, California. "You are your own boss, even if you're in court."
At her school there are 85 students enrolled in the court reporting program, a number expected to increase as more students take classes online. In one class, for example, Ortiz and three other instructors re-enacted court testimony, speaking at different speeds, as students both in the classroom and checking in online typed away. Ortiz said that students at West Valley can complete training in as few as two years for a total cost of about $3,000, plus the $300 to $700 for a used machine.
"Our typical student is a perfectionist and loves words, loves language," said Ortiz. "Many of our students have musical backgrounds. A lot of them have played the piano."
Nageotte added that even bartenders are considered good candidates, "because they multitask, and they are good at approaching challenges."
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To become certified nationally, a court reporter must be able to type 225 words per minute as two voices speak. In California, Ortiz said reporters have to type 200 words per minute as four voices speak.
Students come from all kinds of backgrounds: high school graduates, college graduates dissatisfied with their job prospects, and people looking to start over. Katherine Schilling graduated from Smith College with a degree in Japanese.
"The corporate environment started to wear on me," she said. Schilling was watching "Sons of Anarchy" one night with the subtitles on, "And I thought, 'It's a job? People do this? People get paid for this?' " She enrolled at West Valley College and hopes to start off making "at least $65,000" after finishing classes next year.
Gabriella Woodson is a high school graduate whose mother is a court reporter and whose father is a lawyer. She decided to follow in mom's footsteps. "I love to type, I love to write and all that, and I'm good at being quiet, so that's just perfect for me," she said.
Ortiz said all graduates from her school who receive court reporting licenses have found jobs. Schilling said her family didn't quite understand why she chose this career.
"My brother, for example, he looked at it as, 'Wait, you're going to trade in your four-year degree — so prestigious — for a two-year degree for a secretarial job?'"
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Now, she said, they understand.
"It's different every single day," she said. "As long as I have the skills, I can demand the amount that I want to make."
One may wonder if Apple's Siri spells the end of court reporting. Voice recognition technology still has a long way to go, but won't it eventually replace the need for human transcribers?
Not until it can understand accents, differentiate multiple voices speaking at once, and know when to strike something from the record like a bench conversation, Ortiz said.
"Back in the 1980s, people were asking court reporters, 'Can't this be done with a tape recorder?' " said Ortiz. "We're still here."