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Chapter 4: Scopist Training
4.1 - Overview
Originally, the only way to become a scopist was to be trained in a reporting firm. Today, in addition to on-the-job training, there are public and private schools offering training for becoming a scopist, as well as personalized tutoring-type programs (see Appendix B). The quality of training can vary widely in schooling and in on-the-job situations; for example, there are training programs which don't even touch upon CAT systems in their curriculum, and reporters and reporting firms will generally train a scopist only in their preferred methodologies. On-the-job training has become extremely rare over time, most reporters preferring to take on recent graduates of scopist programs or, sometimes, ex-reporting students who couldn't meet speed requirements. Fortunately, schools and training programs for scopists have been evolving to keep up with the times, and there's starting to be an effort made toward making these programs more uniform in their curricula. Further, there are now various levels of accreditation obtainable by these programs.
As of this writing, there is no mandatory certification required of a scopist, although the National Court Reporters Association does offer scopist testing and certification. Scopists perform draft functions, the final product being certified to by the court reporter who generated the notes. Because certification is not mandatory, there's quite a bit of variation in training approaches used by schools. Recently the National Court Reporters Association started an approval process whereby schools can have their curriculum certified. This is a big help for the scopist student in that training in general will be of higher quality.
Regardless of accreditation, it's important to consider the content of the training when considering a program. You'll want to make sure that the training is complete insofar as all the major areas of the job. Recent graduates can become freelancers or they can join a reporting firm's staff, but the whole benefit to the reporting firm is that they're expecting someone who's on the same page as they are, so to speak, needing only fine-tuning to their personal mores and professional procedures.
4.2 - In-house Training
In-house training is desirable because it's very personalized training, and instead of paying for training, you get paid for it. Note, however, that it's exceedingly rare to get a spot in-house these days without some background or training in the field.
Equipment is usually provided to the scopist-trainee, although oftentimes the scopist is responsible for providing some equipment themselves (like a PC and/or transcriber). The potential drawbacks are that your hours may be inflexible, even requiring evening work; and your pay scale may be low or even nonexistent at the beginning. The scopist-trainee will receive their training either from a reporter or reporting firm and be compensated either by the hour, by a page rate, some combination thereof, or hourly with incentives. Like court reporting, frankly, there's a high attrition rate with scopist-trainees. Oftentimes, a firm or reporter will have to go through many trainees over a period of weeks or months before they find one they can work with, so they can't justify high base rates when paying by the hour; however, there are general approaches for building increases in revenue for the scopist-trainee, thus keeping their income commensurate with their abilities. These high attrition rates in in-house training is why most reporting firms nowadays will first attempt to acquire recent graduates of scopist training programs.
When being paid by a page rate, a scopist-trainee's income is based on the number of pages they produce per hour at the rate per page they receive. Generally, a beginning scopist-trainee will receive a lower rate per page, simply because the reporter or proofreader has to perform a greater number of corrections per page than they would when using an experienced scopist. As the scopist-trainee becomes more proficient, their page output will go up. For example, a first-day trainee might produce five or six pages per hour, if that much. If the trainee is receiving fifty cents per page, that's not even minimum wage. What it is, though, is free training. Within a few weeks, most scopist-trainees should be at the fifteen-page-per-hour level, which at least makes it bearable, especially when markups are available. A good scopist with experience does a little better per hour. My personal experience is that thirty pages per hour is about standard when using audio backup, forty pages per hour when working with steno alone. Of course, technical testimony can be grueling, so you do fewer pages per hour, but the markup compensates you for that.
Scopist-trainees being offered straight page rates generally work for individual reporters or smaller firms. Oftentimes your first week is spent without pay, the reporter or firm simply providing you with training on the equipment and formats so you can begin the scoping process.
Larger firms and more productive reporters will usually offer a base hourly rate, plus a small page incentive, plus markups. For example, a scopist-trainee might be offered minimum wage plus twenty-five cents per page, plus markups. This allows the scopist-trainee to have some base level of income while still being able to increase their income as their personal productivity and proficiency increases. The trainee compensated with an hourly base rate is also expected to perform office tasks when scoping is not required, which is great for the scopist-trainee. This type of training exposes the scopist-trainee to virtually every aspect of a reporting firm's business, making the trainee more intimately aware of the needs of other departments, like proofreaders or copy staff or bindery staff, etc., while ensuring that the scopist-trainee is part of "the team."
As the scopist-trainee's proficiency increases, generally so does their page rate. After six months or a year, the successful scopist-trainee should begin to reach the twenty- to thirty-page-per-hour mark and will be receiving somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy-five cents per page, plus markups. Remember, however, that rates vary from region to region, as does the need for court reporting.
Receiving in-house training is generally an insider's game, in that most scopist-trainees are recruited by a friend who is a court reporter or is involved with the court reporting office, or at least is an ex-student of court reporting. However, firms and reporters will also hire people who they feel are competent and trainable, so it's always a good idea to submit applications to reporting firms if you're interested in in-house training. Your personal interview will be the most critical part of the process, because enthusiasm is the major ingredient in a hard-worker, and scoping and court reporting can be very hard work indeed.
4.3 - Training Programs
As stated previously, there are many, many different ways to receive scopist training. There are private schools which offer training, public schools which offer training, private tutoring programs, and correspondence and Internet-based courses. The training method chosen should be the one that most matches the prospective scopist's needs.
When considering curriculum-oriented training for becoming a scopist, you really need to start at the grassroots and ask yourself some basic questions:
Do you wish to be a scopist specifically, having no desire to become a court reporter?
Court reporting requires that you go physically to various places and work under the gun. Scopists work generally in the back room or at home, with some degree of flexibility. Some people's lifestyle is conducive to scoping but not reporting, and others, like myself, simply prefer not to be "under the gun," and enjoy the flexibility afforded by working freelance as a scopist. As stated earlier, there is a very high attrition rate in court reporting. Part of the attrition rate is due to the fact that court reporting requires a high degree of manual dexterity combined with quick thinking.
Can you qualify for financial aid, and if not, can you afford the coursework and equipment expense?
There are ways of handling the financial aspect of scopist training, but some methods might be limiting. For example, some scopist training programs can be covered by financial aid and PEL grants, while many others are not. Some programs offer their coursework in a modular format, allowing you to purchase modules individually and learn at your own speed or as finances allow. Other programs can be quite expensive up front, but they're more all-inclusive. During all this, you have to remember that there's generally an equipment cost involved, and it's usually considerable.
There are ways to minimize equipment costs. For example, you probably own and enjoy using a PC. If not, or if you prefer a workstation instead of sharing your personal PC, remember that many CAT systems are written for the DOS environment, so even a 386 EGA workstation that runs about $400-$500 brand-new is an acceptable platform. Transcribers, which are special tape decks with foot pedal controls and headphone jacks, can also be expensive. Freelance scopists generally need several tape formats also, to support different reporters' audio backup systems. These decks can run several hundred dollars apiece, but most companies that service them also sell them used at a fraction of the price, and a few even rent them by the day, week or month. These companies can usually be found in the Yellow Pages, under "Business Machines." CAT software can be found used, in classifieds on the Internet or in JCR, the Magazine of the National Court Reporters Association. Furthermore, many vendors of CAT systems have student versions of their software, with varying degrees of functionality. These CAT systems are generally available free of charge or at a nominal cost. Visit CAT vendors' websites for information and downloading. A good list of vendors can be found at Scopists.com's "Catlinks" section. Some scopist training programs will provide you with a student version CAT system to use for your training.
How much individual attention will you need?
Correspondence courses are great for those who are self-motivated, but some people may prefer more individualized help. This requires finding a physical campus location, working in-house in a reporting firm or taking a tutor-oriented scopist training course, either in person, over the Internet or via correspondence.
One major alternative to actual scopist training, and one that I personally feel is underutilized, is community college or public university. Some community colleges and universities offer court reporter training and certification, usually in a two-year program. Although not specifically a scopist program, taking a court reporter course exposes you to the bulk of the required training for becoming a scopist. All aspects of the profession are available in these programs, including learning machine shorthand, CAT systems, grammar for legal transcription, government process, and transcript production. One need simply skip the machine-oriented courses (the hardest, most time-consuming part of the court reporting curriculum), since a scopist is not required to work on a stenograph machine. There are drawbacks, though, to this approach in that most community college programs for court reporting are offered as an all-or-nothing package, so there could be considerable additional cost for courses you don't even intend to pass. Also, there's the standard entry requirements that all community colleges and universities require, so there's generally a list of prerequisite courses needed in order to be eligible for the court reporting program.
The real beauty of taking a reporting course when coming in on the ground floor is that, you never know, you might make a good court reporter. Court reporting is lucrative, and most reporters make two or three times the income of a scopist. If the income is important, this is a good opportunity to "go for broke," so to speak, and use scoping as a fall-back position if you can't get the required speed out of your steno machine or if you do decide you wouldn't enjoy working in live proceedings (let's face it, attorneys can try anyone's patience <g>).
And of course, all community colleges offer financial aid, PEL grants, student career counseling and the like.
Once you've decided what your needs are and what the resources are in your area, you can decide on a plan of action.
Even if none of these alternatives are available to you, you can always try the in-house training approach. Here's a neat trick, if you really get stuck, for creating a niche in a reporting firm: Apply at minimum wage to be an office clerk, a receptionist or copy person. Once you're in and accepted in the team, start vocalizing your interest in becoming a scopist. Sooner or later, a reporter will probably take you under wing, first as overflow and then as a regular. On a personal note, I was introduced to court reporting because I was hired to set up the computer room of a reporting firm. I didn't particularly care for the court reporting aspect of the business but I was very interested in scoping. Next thing you know, I'm a trainee. That was in 1985.
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