MENASHA (NBC 26) — Before court can begin session, there must be a person present to record the minutes. Traditionally, that job has gone to stenographers. But after challenges posed by a pandemic and a major demand for professionals in the field, a new solution is emerging.
Jon Bellows is the District Court Administrator for the Fourth Judicial District. He said the issue with finding stenographers likely stems from how difficult the job can be.
“I think part of the problem with the traditional stenography programs is it’s very, very hard… To be able to graduate stenography school you have to be able to type on a steno machine at a minimum of 225 words a minute, which is very, very fast. They are essentially typing shorthand in a foreign language,” Bellows said.
And the shortage of stenographers isn't a local issue. It is nationwide.
“The National Court Reporters Association, their previous president estimated that by this year, there is a – nationally – a gap between supply and demand of about 11,000 people across the U.S. We’re certainly not immune from that," said Bellows.
So, why not just rely on technology to record everything?
“If we were going to do digital audio recording in the Wisconsin Courts... it had to be monitored," Bellows explained. "So, that means we can’t just turn on the machines and let them run. We need a person.”
Enter the new Digital Court Reporter program at Fox Valley Technical College. It's a degree that can take as little as one year to complete.
Alexis Gutierrez is one such graduate now working in the field. She said that the work she does locally is able to serve need all over the state.
“Digital Court Reporters are statewide, so we are located everywhere around the state; we’re not just in one area," Gutierrez said. "There are hubs around Wisconsin as well, one of them being in Menasha. And then one in Waukesha, and I believe there is one located in the Dane County Courthouse as well, but we’re hoping for more to come.”
This new style of court reporting involves monitoring equipment as it records, and taking notes along the way. It no longer requires a typist to get down every word immediately.
“It’s forward-thinking; it’s something that we never really thought about ten years ago. Like, it was just stenos and judges and clerks, and now it’s Digital Court Reporters on Zoom, and still having access to taking the record remotely and accurately from our offices. It’s wonderful," Gutierrez said.
The program was an innovation born of the pandemic. It began as a way to assist a single judge remotely, but it has grown since then.
“Now we cover 20 or so judges on a day-to-day basis, and we continue to grow," said Bellows.
The results are undeniable, according to Bellows and Gutierrez.
“Just with COVID and everything it was very, very hard to keep court going. The – gosh, through 2020. Even, I believe, 2021 was hard. I know judges are still catching up from not having court for months and almost a year,” Gutierrez said. “Definitely has helped a lot of judges around the state.”
Anyone interested in making a career change is encouraged to check out the program offered at Fox Valley Technical College. The state is still hiring for many positions, as the effectiveness of the position further manifests.