Stenographers take dictation using either shorthand notation or a stenotype machine, then later transcribe their notes into business documents. They may record people’s remarks at meetings or other proceedings and later give a summary report or a word-for-word transcript of what was said. General stenographers may also perform other office tasks such as typing, filing, answering phones, and operating office machines.
History of Stenographer Career
Because of the need for accurate records of speeches, meetings, legal proceedings, and other events, people throughout history have experimented with methods and symbols for abbreviating spoken communications. Contemporary shorthand systems are based on the phonetic principle of using a symbol to represent a sound. Stenographers use a special keyboard called a steno keyboard or shorthand machine to “write” what they hear as they hear it.
Shorthand began to be applied to business communications with the invention of the typewriter. The stenotype, the first machine that could print shorthand characters, was invented by an American in 1910. Unlike a traditional typewriter keyboard, the steno keyboard allows more than one key to be pressed at a time. Although the basic concept behind machine shorthand is phonetic, where combinations of keys represent sounds, the actual theory used is much more complex than straight phonetics.
Today, stenographers, in addition to using stenotype machines, may use Dictaphones or computer-based systems to transcribe reports, letters, and official records of meetings or other events. Their careful and accurate work is essential to the proper functioning of various organizations of law, business, and government.
The Job of Stenographers
Stenographers take dictation and then transcribe their notes on a typewriter or word processor. They may be asked to record speeches, conversations, legal proceedings, meetings, or a person’s business correspondence. They may either take shorthand manually or use a stenotype machine.
In addition to transcription tasks, general stenographers may also have a variety of other office duties, such as typing, operating photocopy and other office machines, answering telephones, and performing general receptionist duties. They may sit in on staff meetings and later transcribe a summary report of the proceedings for use by management. In some situations, stenographers may be responsible for answering routine office mail.
Experienced and highly skilled stenographers take on more difficult dictation assignments. They may take dictation in foreign languages or at very busy proceedings. Some work as public stenographers, who are hired out to serve traveling business people and unique meetings and events.
Steno pool supervisors supervise and coordinate the work of stenographers by assigning them to people who have documents to dictate or by giving stenographers manuscripts, spools of tape, or recordings to transcribe. They also check final typed copy for accuracy.
Skilled stenographers who receive additional training may learn to operate computer-aided transcription (CAT) systems—stenotype machines that are linked directly to a computer. Specialized computer software instantly translates stenographic symbols into words. This technology is most frequently used by real-time captioners or others doing computer-aided real-time translation in courtrooms, classrooms, or meetings, and requires a more sophisticated knowledge of computer systems and English grammar, along with enhanced technical skills. (See “Real-time Captioners”). Other areas of specialization for stenographers include the following:
Print shop stenographers take dictation and operate a special typewriter that produces metal printing plates for use by addressing machines.
Transcribing-machine operators listen to recordings (often through earphones or earplugs) and use a typewriter or word processor to transcribe the material. They can control the speed of the tape so that they can type every word they hear at a comfortable speed. Transcribing- machine operators may also have various clerical duties, such as answering the telephones and filing correspondence.
Technical stenographers may specialize in medical, legal, engineering, or other technical areas. They should be familiar with the terminology and the practice of the appropriate subject. For example, a medical transcriptionist must be a medical language expert and be familiar with the processes of patient assessment, therapeutic procedures, diagnoses, and prognoses (See “Medical Transcriptionists”).
Court reporters specialize in taking notes for and transcribing legal and court proceedings (See “Court Reporters”). Real-time captioners operate CAT stenotype systems to create English closed captions for live television broadcasts (See “Real-time captioners”). It should be noted that the body of knowledge required to perform the tasks of a court reporter or real-time captioner is greater than that which a stenographer needs to know. While a court reporter or captioner could readily perform the tasks of an office stenographer, the stenographer would be unable to perform either job without additional training.
Stenographer Career Requirements
Although there are no specific educational requirements, most stenographers should have a high school diploma. Some high school students follow a business education curriculum and take courses in typing, shorthand, and business procedures. These students may later enter a business school or college for more advanced technical training. Other students may follow a general education program and take courses in English, history, mathematics, and the sciences, intending to undergo all of their technical training after graduation.
Although some students with a business curriculum background are able to obtain jobs immediately after graduation from high school, better job opportunities and higher salaries may be more readily available to those who have sought advanced technical training, a college degree, or some avenue of specialization. In many instances, training at a business school, vocational school, or college may be required. Those considering the more advanced career of court reporter or real-time captioner should earn at least a two-year degree in court and conference reporting, although a four-year degree that includes courses in computers and English is preferable.
Numerous opportunities for advanced training exist. Hundreds of business schools and colleges throughout the country offer technical or degree programs with both day and evening classes. These schools can be located in the telephone directory or by contacting individual state employment services.
Certification or Licensing
Some stenographers, especially those who work for the federal government, may belong to a union such as the Office and Professional Employees’ International Union. To work for the federal government, stenographers must pass a civil service test and be able to take dictation at the rate of 80 words per minute and type at least 40 words per minute. Tests of verbal and mathematical ability are also required. Employers in the private sector may require similar tests. Certification is available for advanced jobs, such as court reporters, real-time captioners, and medical transcriptionists.
Stenographers should have good reading comprehension and spelling skills, as well as good finger and hand dexterity. They should also find systematic and orderly work appealing, and they should like to work on detailed tasks. Other personal qualifications include dependability, trustworthiness, and a neat personal appearance, given their high degree of visibility.
Exploring Stenographer Career
You can get experience in the stenography field by assuming clerical and typing responsibilities with a school club or other organization. In addition, some school workstudy programs may have opportunities with businesses for part-time, on-the-job training. It may also be possible to get a part-time or summer job in a business office by contacting offices on your own. You may have the opportunity to get training in the operation of word processors and other office machinery through evening or continuing education courses offered by business schools and community colleges.
Stenographers, including those who have developed special skills through training, are employed in various organizations of law; business; and federal, state, and local government. Some specialist stenographers work in medical, legal, engineering, or other technical areas. Some stenographers develop their own freelance businesses.
High school guidance counselors and business education teachers may be helpful in locating job opportunities for would-be stenographers. Additionally, business schools and colleges frequently have placement programs to help their trainees and graduates find employment. Those interested in securing an entry-level position can also contact individual businesses or government agencies directly. Jobs may also be located through newspaper classified ads.
Many companies administer aptitude tests to potential employees before they are hired. Speed and accuracy are critical factors in making such evaluations. Individuals who are initially unable to meet the minimum requirements for a stenographer position may want to take jobs as typists or clerks and, as they gain experience and technical training, try for promotion to the position of stenographer.
Skilled stenographers can advance to secretarial positions, especially if they develop their interpersonal communications skills. They may also become heads of stenographic departments or in some cases be promoted to office manager. In some instances, experienced stenographers may go into business for themselves as public stenographers serving traveling business people and others. Stenographers who complete advanced training may become court reporters, real-time captioners, or medical transcriptionists.
Salaries for stenographers vary widely, depending on their skill, experience, level of responsibility, and geographic location. New workers may earn as little $14,000 a year, while the most experienced stenographers may earn $33,000 or more annually. According to Salary.com, stenographers earn a median salary of $32,174, with the lowest-paid 25 percent of stenographers earning less than $26,354, and the highest-paid 75 percent earning a salary of $39,749 a year. Full-time workers also receive paid vacation, health insurance, and other benefits.
Relatively few office stenographers work in the evenings or on weekends. (This is not true of court reporters, realtime captioners, or those who freelance their services, as they often work long and irregular hours.) Some stenographers take on part-time or temporary work during peak business periods.
The physical work environment is usually pleasant and comfortable, although stenographers may sometimes have to work under extreme deadline pressure. Stenographers may also be subject to repetitive stress injury, a prevalent industrial hazard for those who perform repeated motions in their daily work. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a type of repetitive stress injury that stenographers can sometimes develop, causing a prickling sensation or numbness in the hand and sometimes a partial loss of function. Stenographers generally perform their jobs while seated and so must be conscious of correct posture and proper seating.
The majority of stenographers are not required to travel; however, some may accompany their employers on business trips to provide dictation services.
Stenographer Career Outlook
Job opportunities for unspecialized stenographers have been declining and should continue to fall off sharply in the coming years. Audio recording equipment and the use of personal computers by managers and other professionals has greatly reduced the demand for these workers, while increasing demand for CAT system operators in real-time settings. The trend to provide instantaneous captions for the deaf and hearing-impaired and the growing use of CAT technology in courtroom trials should strengthen the demand for real-time reporters. Continued technological advances, such as computer-aided equipment that can print out what is being said by a spoken voice, will imperil this profession further.
Despite this decline, however, some jobs will become available as people retire or otherwise leave the profession. As always, those with the most skill and experience, or a particular area of expertise (such as legal or medical stenographers) will have the best employment possibilities.