I appreciate what statistics can do, the degree to which they are damned notwithstanding. So ever since I learned about horizontal violence and maladaptive perfectionism, I’ve been wondering if anyone actually knows what the big picture is with regards to sign language interpreter burn-out and the success rates of trainee interpreters. NRCPD usually congratulates us on a quarterly basis about increases in registration: what are those numbers really saying?
Actually creating statistics, however, usually sends me into a blind rage. I recently had to write a horrible statistics evaluation and my main PC exploded shortly afterwards, I suspect on purpose, to permanently escape the verbal abuse I was heaping on it. So I offer the following in the full knowledge that no-one will really appreciate me shortening my life by several months, due to repeated dangerous surges of blood pressure and inadvisably sharp cranial impacts on nearby hard surfaces such as walls and desks.
Above, you can see a chart showing the numbers of interpreters registered with NRCPD, by registration category, plotted over the five years of the current register’s existence. The sources of the raw data are the roughly quarterly updates from NRCPD, exactly as published, 20 time points in total. NRCPD took over the register from the Independent Registration Panel (IRP) and ACE/Deafblind Panel on 1 January 2009 but I could not locate any published data until November of that year.
NRCPD did tweak the categories and their definitions twice during the period above. The first time was really only a cosmetic change. The second was the combination of the Junior Trainee Interpreter (JTI) and Trainee Interpreter (TI) categories into a single Trainee Sign Language Interpreter (TSLI) category with effect from October 2012. In this analysis I have simply treated all trainees as trainees regardless of category, adding the numbers of JTIs and TIs together prior to the change (the numbers of TIs were never that significant in any case).
Just by looking at the pretty colours, we can make a few immediate observations:
- The total number of interpreters and the number of fully qualified and registered interpreters is steadily growing over time, with the growth appearing at first glance to be fairly linear, even if early 2013 wasn’t a particularly happy time.
- The number of trainee interpreters, however, appears to be almost flat overall, but did actually drop slightly for most of 2012 and 2013. The peak value for trainees was 269 on 30/11/2011; the lowest value for trainees following the peak was 231 on 31/10/2013, indicating a drop of 14% between November 2011 and October 2013, and it has only partially recovered since. What might have accounted for the loss of trainees in that period and the lack of trainee growth overall is an exercise I leave to the reader.
- Something strange happened at the end of Q1 2010 and again in Q2 2011, with noticeable wobbles. Either a group of interpreters left the register en masse on both occasions, or there is an inconsistency in the way that NRCPD was reporting the annual change in numbers – I’m inclined to think the latter.
I did also consider including the other non-BSL occupations registered with NRCPD: I decided that, given the very small and apparently shrinking numbers of people involved (collectively, those six professions now occupy just 9% of the registers’ membership as of early 2014), it wouldn’t reveal anything new about the attraction of being a registered STTR or what the current state of the lipspeaking profession is.
From the graph above, you might think that everything looks rosy. It could certainly be a lot worse. But something niggled at me about this picture. For some reason, I kept thinking about those crazy models of the economy that used tanks of flowing liquid. So I plotted some trends, using linear regression:
This confirms the observation that the number of qualified interpreters is steadily growing, at a rate of +83.5 interpreters per year. The R² value for the coefficient of determination (how well the trend fits to the variance) is nearly 98%, indicating a very good fit.
However the trend for trainees is much less predictable: the best fit seems to show a rate of +6.5 trainees per year, but the R² value indicates that only 22% of the variance is accounted for by that trend. We already know from above that the numbers actually fell for nearly half the span of this data. Even if the trend were a good fit, a growth rate of six trainees per year would not be something to make a big song and dance about when you’re talking about more than a thousand people. Let’s just say that the number of trainees is fairly constant: I calculated the mean to be roughly 240 trainees over the last four years.
So the occupation is apparently growing, but its pool of trainees is not.
Returning to the original questions of how much burn-out and other causes of interpreter loss there might be and what is happening to trainees, can we draw any conclusions? 83.5 additional Registered Sign Language Interpreters (RSLIs) are being fairly steadily created every year (I am probably the half interpreter for 2012), but that figure is overall – we do not know anything explicit about the turnover of interpreters. NRCPD don’t actually tell us how many new people register, or indeed how many people de-register: for all we know from the data, 791 interpreters left the profession and 874 brand new RSLIs joined last year. But RSLIs do not necessarily pop out of the vacuum spontaneously like Hawking radiation: most of them will probably have been TSLIs beforehand, if not quite all (I am an example of an RSLI who saw absolutely no benefit to anyone other than NRCPD in my registering as a trainee and so saved the money to help pay for the actual training instead). And we know that there has consistently been a pool of ~240 trainees to pull from. The relationship between the slope of qualified interpreter growth and the size of the trainee pool must say something about attrition, whether there is overall growth or not.
So while we can’t state any new hard facts about interpreter loss, we can at least put some outer limits on the phenomenon and turn the spotlights on in the ball-park, by looking at the extremes of possibility suggested by the trends and having a bit of a think.
- Extreme scenario 1: All ~83 of the new RSLIs every year were previously TSLIs. They are immediately replaced by new TSLIs. No TSLIs give up and leave, and no RSLIs leave the profession. The remaining ~157 TSLIs who did not graduate simply mill around in the holding pen for another year.
- Extreme scenario 2: Maybe all the ~240 TSLIs complete their training every year with flying colours: they all immediately register as RSLIs and they are immediately replaced by another batch of ~240 fresh-faced trainees. If that were true, it would mean that we are losing up to ~157 RSLIs every year (240-83): that is roughly 18% of the current RSLI pool (as of early 2014), or nearly a fifth, and almost double (189%) the net gain per year.
- Extreme scenario 3: Of course, not all TSLIs will ever graduate: some of them will fail and give up instead, or simply change their minds once they’ve found out what the interpreting world is like, and go back to road-sweeping or being a CSW or whatever despicable task they had beforehand. As there is no clear trend of growth in TSLIs, we know that the sum of TSLI drop-outs and graduations must be more or less balanced by the number of new trainees registering, and we also know that the number of RSLIs does rise by ~83 per year. We also know that TSLIs now have a maximum lifespan of four years before they decay into another particle: although we have yet to reach the end of the initial period of this restriction, it reminds us that the TSLI reservoir is unlikely to be completely static. If we assume once again that practically all RSLIs were TSLIs beforehand, and if we knew how many new TSLIs registered, we would then also know how many TSLIs fail and/or give up: all we can say for now is that the range must be 0 to 156 lost or perpetual trainees (ie. 0% to 65% of the pool). Depending on the number of RSLIs who do not bother with TSLI registration, it could be higher.
Conclusions / punchlines
Regular T9000 readers won’t fall over with astonishment about the tone of the following.
- The sign language interpreting occupation is steadily growing in overall numbers, but either its training industry is not, or the trainee register is unrepresentative/unattractive.
- Despite growth of ~83 qualified interpreters per year, some individuals must be lost, taking their knowledge and experience away with them. Given that the size of the pool of trainees has remained almost constant for years, if you assumed that the attrition rate for both trainee and qualified interpreters were very low, the growth rate could have been as high as ~240 per year instead. So depending on missing data regarding new registrations instead of just totals, in the most extreme case we could be losing about a fifth of the qualified interpreters on the register every year. This extreme scenario is very unlikely as it depends on a failure/drop-out rate of 0 for trainee interpreters: if, generously, the attrition were evenly split with the trainee pool, a compromise of an annual loss of, say, 1 in 10 qualified interpreters seems more likely. Even the extreme scenario compares favourably with the current nightmare experienced by teachers: but either rate seems high and far from ideal for such a small occupation as sign language interpreting, especially when measured against the gain of newly qualified, less experienced interpreters. An alternative scenario is that no qualified interpreters are being lost at all, but maybe two-thirds of trainees are either failing or not progressing. But we just don’t know and aren’t being told.
- On that note, as well as being mostly in the dark regarding magnitude, we know nothing from available data about the demographics of loss, or its underlying causes: it could all be accounted for by the burning out of the newly qualified, or just by the ennui of the experienced, or some mixture of the two, or other factors. Losing people from either of those groups has serious consequences: it is a toss-up between a loss of fresh blood and new perspectives, and a diminished library of experience and wisdom. Attrition rates would have to be extremely low amongst qualified interpreters and very high amongst trainees in order for us not to be haemorrhaging the most experienced interpreters; but the idea of putting a lot of trainees through expensive training that fails is not appealing either.
- But it has to be stated that the NRCPD register does not represent the whole occupation and we have no idea what is actually happening to anyone who de-registers. Even in the scenario where we are losing almost double the number of experienced interpreters from the register than the net gain, it is possible (among other possibilities) that they all continue to practice outside of the voluntary registration process, as is their right. Incredibly, given the above, that may be a saving grace.
No-one but NRCPD has the power to reduce any of the uncertainties above, by giving us more detail of turnover and better access to our own profession. The question of why anyone might leave sign language interpreting, however, is for the whole occupation and its commissioners to act on.
I’m happy for this analysis to be redistributed (I would hardly be putting it on the internet if I didn’t) but would appreciate a credit, as I did use up some of my finite supply of neurons to do it.
Hugs, Matt x
Update, 25/5/2014: For an extended timeline from 2002-2014 that includes the IRP era of registration, see this post.