Dec. 3, 2007

"Noon" comes out as a staggered and seemingly undecipherable "TPHAOPB" to the untrained eye when the combination of letters is written on a stenotype machine.

A court reporter, however, who has studied intensely to learn this specialized shorthand on a 24-key shorthand machine, can accurately input information in areas ranging from hearings and trials to the Congressional Record, and help the deaf see what they cannot hear in the classroom and on TV.

Tiffany Mast of Mifflintown is in the final phase of mastering the machine, which entails a combination of speed and accuracy. She has reached what she hails as a "milestone" of 200 words per minute in the Court and Realtime Reporting program at HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College.

The 21-year-old student is striving to achieve the 225 words per minute required to pass a National Court Reporter Association exam to become a certified court reporter and earn an associate degree. Choosing this career path was easy - she only had to look to her mom, Tracey Markle.

Mom's in the field

Markle, also of Mifflintown, runs her own court reporting business. A single mom, she started studying the field at age 27. "My father, a practicing attorney -- Harold Powell of Mifflintown -- mentioned that court reporting seemed to have a lot of potential," she recalls. Up until that point, Markle held a variety of jobs, from selling cars to working for Empire Kosher Foods in Mifflintown.

Mast's decision to go in a similar direction wasn't just a matter of following in mom's footsteps. She began to think about it after shadowing her mom around for 50 hours for a required senior class project at Juniata High School.

Having done a lot more shadowing during the course of her studies, Mast says, "I love court reporting. It's challenging, offers new knowledge and experiences all the time and it is fun."

Markle, who obtained her certification through Central Penn Business College, says HACC is filling a void in the Harrisburg region that has existed since that program closed. Court reporting isn't a well-known occupation and demand for a new program wasn't high on wish lists for anyone other than those already in the business.

Markle, however, is a walking advertisement for the job. "How many truly love their jobs? I do," she says. "Oh, I can get a little frustrated, but that's normal in anything you do. Overall, the flexibility and constant change of pace are things I wouldn't trade."

Starting HACC's Program

Court and Realtime Reporting is a career path where a critical need exists for qualified people, says Annette DeWald of Hanover, coordinator of the HACC program.

DeWald, who also is a court reporter for York County, helped to develop the community college's program, which is now in its third year. When she heard HACC was talking about creating a program, DeWald kept calling to encourage the idea and was asked to join the college's advisory committee in 2004. She then worked on developing the curriculum.

Court and Realtime Reporting were introduced in 2005 as a night-time course of study. Day-time classes will be offered in fall 2008.

DeWald, who brought 17 years experience to the HACC coordinator's job, was a stay-at-home mother of three who started taking classes to read stenotype machine shorthand and do editing. "I fell in love with the work," she says.

She went to Villa Julie College in Stevenson, Md., to pursue certification and was a freelance court reporter for five years in Baltimore before moving to Pennsylvania.

"This is a job where you can have structure by working for an agency or no structure as a freelancer," DeWald explains. "You can do a lot and make a great deal of money or do a less and make $50,000 a year."

Each day different

As Cindy Repman of Dover Township says in talking abut her 25-year career as a court reporter, "There are so many avenues you can travel down. Each day is a challenge. You deal with a different story every single day."

While those in the field call the work exciting and rewarding, they openly admit the learning curve is steep and discourages some from completing the requirements.

Repman, who also works at the York County courthouse, says, "We've had four or five years of constant openings." Freelance court reporters offset the deficit of qualified full-time reporters.

The National Court Reporting Association points to a countrywide shortage in the field. The association acknowledges the shortage on its website and points to an unresolved debate about lowering the 225-word certification level as an incentive to students.

In her coordinator's role at HACC, DeWald says, "I receive a lot of calls about whether HACC has students ready to go to work. The shortage of certified personnel is critical."

The work of certified court reporters is diverse and includes:

  • providing verbatim records of courtroom trials and hearings;
  • reporting depositions and other legal hearings;
  • transcribing statements for the Congressional Record;
  • reporting medical and technical testimony;
  • writing closed captioning for the hard of hearing, and
  • offering CART services one-on-one to deaf students in the classroom.

U.S. Department of Labor statistics report the national median earnings for court reporters at $64,670 a year. "The sky's the limit for those who want to earn more," says Repman.

DeWald says the best candidates for the job are avid readers who are computer literate with manual dexterity and have excellent language skills. Court reporters need to "catch on fast and write phonetically" They also get the chance to satisfy their curiosity since "they build up a wide range of knowledge."

Fast facts:

The Court and Realtime Reporting program at HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College offer's two options:

  • 41 credit-hour certificate program that trains students specifically in court reporting theory and procedures, English for court reporters, technology, Realtime Reporting and includes an internship.
  • In the Associate in Arts degree program, 69 credit hours are required, including additional courses in medical terminology, legal terminology and general education. Some classes can be taken at the Gettysburg, Lancaster, Lebanon and York Campuses. The complete program is available at the Harrisburg Campus.

In fall 2008, HACC will offer Court and Reporting Realtime classes in both the daytime and evening at the Harrisburg Campus. For more information contact Annette DeWald at 771-9211 or send her an e-mail at the address below.

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