SSR 82-41


PURPOSE: To further explain the concepts of "skills" and "transferability of skills" and to clarify how these concepts are used in disability evaluation.

CITATIONS (AUTHORITY): Sections 223(d)(2)(A) and 1614(a)(3)(B) of the Social Security Act; Regulations No. 4, sections 404.1520(f), 404.1545, 404.1561, 404.1563, 404.1565, 404.1566 and 404.1568; Regulations No. 16, sections 416.920(f), 416.945, 416.961, 416.963, 416.965, 416.966 and 416.968; and Appendix 2, Subpart P of Regulations No. 4, sections 200.00(b), 201.00(e), 201.00(f), 202.00(e) and 202.00(f).

PERTINENT HISTORY: The law states that, to be found disabled, a worker must have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) of such severity that he or she is not only unable to do previous work but cannot, considering his or her age, education and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. Skills and their transferability relate to "work experience" in the definition of disability and to people's abilities to do occupations different from those they did before becoming impaired. Claims which require consideration of an applicant's ability to adjust to other work are addressed in the last step of the sequential evaluation process as it is explained in the regulations.

In February 1979, the regulations were amended to consolidate all policies for adjudicating disability claims in which an individual's vocational factors; i.e., age, education and work experience, must be considered in addition to the medical condition. At that time, the medical-vocational guidelines were introduced as Appendix 2 into the regulations and became binding at all levels of adjudication and appeal. There have been some misinterpretations and misapplications of the regulations relating to determining the skill levels of jobs and whether or not skills are transferable. In addition, there is a need to clarify the definition of semiskilled work (especially in relation to unskilled work) and to more fully explain how work skills are acquired and what jobs they may be transferable to under the regulations. There also appears to be come confusion regarding the nature of the evidence necessary to support findings as to skill levels and transferability.

Policy statements on these issues will enable all components of the Social Security Administration to better understand and apply the provisions of the regulations properly and consistently.

POLICY STATEMENT: The topics discussed below expand upon the disability regulations.

  1. When transferability of work skills is at issue. Transferability of skills is an issue only when an individual's impairment(s), though severe, does not meet or equal the criteria in the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1 of the regulations but does prevent the performance of past relevant work (PRW), and that work has been determined to be skilled or semiskilled. (PRW is defined in regulations sections 404.1565 and 416.965.) When the table rules in Appendix 2 are applicable to a case, transferability will be decisive in the conclusion of "disabled" or "not disabled" in only a relatively few instances because, even if it is determined that there are no transferable skills, a finding of "not disabled" may be based on the ability to do unskilled work.

  2. Skills, skill levels, and their potential for being transferred to other occupations.

    1. What a "skill" is. A skill is knowledge of a work activity which requires the exercise of significant judgment that goes beyond the carrying out of simple job duties and is acquired through performance of an occupation which is above the unskilled level (requires more than 30 days to learn). It is practical and familiar knowledge of the principles and processes of an art, science or trade, combined with the ability to apply them in practice in a proper and approved manner. This includes activities like making precise measurements, reading blueprints, and setting up and operating complex machinery. A skill gives a person a special advantage over unskilled workers in the labor market.

      Skills are not gained by doing unskilled jobs, and a person has no special advantage if he or she is skilled or semiskilled but can qualify only for an unskilled job because his or her skills cannot be used to any significant degree in other jobs. The table rules in Appendix 2 are consistent with the provisions regarding skills because the same conclusion is directed for individuals with an unskilled work background and for those with a skilled or semiskilled work background whose skills are not transferable. A person's acquired work skills may or may not be commensurate with his or her formal educational attainment.

    2. What "transferability" is. Transferability means applying work skills which a person has demonstrated in vocationally relevant past jobs to meet the requirements of other skilled or semiskilled jobs. Transferability is distinct from the usage of skills recently learned in school which may serve as a basis for direct entry into skilled work (Appendix 2, section 201.00(g)).

    3. Determination that a job is unskilled. Unskilled occupations are the least complex types of work. Jobs are unskilled when persons can usually learn to do them in 30 days or less. The majority of unskilled jobs are identified in the Department of Labor's Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). It should be obvious that restaurant dishwashers are unskilled. It may not be self-evident that other jobs can be learned in 30 days or less, such as sparkplug assembler, school-crossing guard and carpenter's or baker's helper (laborers). In these cases, occupational reference materials or specialists should be consulted. (State agencies may use vocational consultants, specialists or vocational evaluation workshops to assist in resolving complex vocational issues; and vocational experts may be consulted for this purpose at the hearing and appeals levels. In this Program Policy Statement, the term vocational specialist (VS) describes all vocational resource personnel.)

    4. Determination that a job is semiskilled and whether skills are transferable to other jobs. Semiskilled occupations are more complex than unskilled work and distinctly simpler than the more highly skilled types of jobs. They contain more variables and require more judgment than do unskilled occupations. Even though semiskilled occupations require more than 30 days to learn, the content of work activities in some semiskilled jobs may be little more than unskilled. Therefore, close attention must be paid to the actual complexities of the job in dealing with data, people, or objects and to the judgments required to do the work.

      The regulations definition of semiskilled work in regulations sections 404.1568(b) and 416.968(b) states that semiskilled jobs "may require alertness and close attention ... coordination and dexterity ... as when hands or feet must be moved quickly to do repetitive tasks." These descriptive terms are not intended, however, to illustrate types of skills, in and of themselves. The terms describe worker traits (aptitudes or abilities) rather than acquired work skills.

      Skills refer to experience and demonstrated proficiency with work activities in particular tasks or jobs. In evaluating the skill level of PRW or potential occupations, work activities are the determining factors.

      Worker traits to be relevant must have been used in connection with a work activity. Thus, in the regulations, the trait of alertness is connected with the work activities of close attention to watching machine processes, inspecting, testing, tending or guarding; and the traits of coordination and dexterity with the use of hands or feet for the rapid performance of repetitive work tasks. It is the acquired capacity to perform the work activities with facility (rather than the traits themselves) that gives rise to potentially transferable skills.

      At the lower level of semiskilled work (next to unskilled) are jobs like those of a chauffeur and some sewing-machine operators. Also at the lower level of semiskilled work would be such jobs as room service waiter, in which the worker serves meals to guests in their rooms, taking silverware, linen, plates and food on a tray or cart and then removing the equipment from rooms after guests have eaten. Transferability of skills is not usually found from this rather simple type of work. When job activities are at this minimal level of skill, an adjudicator or administrative law judge (ALJ) can often, without assistance, make the determination that the worker has very little vocational advantage over an unskilled person and does not have transferable skills.

      Slightly more complex, at a higher level of semiskilled work, are jobs like that of a nurse aide, who may also serve food to people. A nurse aide ordinarily performs other tasks which do not provide a special advantage over unskilled workers, such as dusting and cleaning rooms, changing bed linens, and bathing, dressing and undressing patients. The only duties which suggest transferable skills are those related to "nurse" rather than "aide" -- taking and recording the rates of temperature, pulse and respiration; and recording food and liquid intake and output. However, these occasional or incidental parts of the overall nurse aide job, which are a small part of a higher skilled job (nurse), would not ordinarily give a meaningful vocational advantage over unskilled. The extent of such duties, however, may vary with individual nurse aides.

      On the other hand, a semiskilled general office clerk (administrative clerk), doing light work, ordinarily is equally proficient in, and spends considerable time doing, typing, filing, tabulating and posting data in record books, preparing invoices and statements, operating adding and calculating machines, etc. These clerical skills may be readily transferable to such semiskilled sedentary occupations as typist, clerk-typist and insurance auditing control clerk.

    5. Determination that a job is skilled and whether skills are transferable to other jobs. Skilled occupations are more complex and varied than unskilled and semiskilled occupations. They require more training time and often a higher educational attainment. Abstract thinking in specialized fields may be required, as for chemists and architects. Special artistic talents and mastery of a musical instrument may be involved, as for school band instructors. Practical knowledge of machinery and understanding of charts and technical manuals may be needed by an automobile mechanic. The president or chief executive officer of a business organization may need exceptional ability to deal with people, organize various data, and make difficult decisions in several areas of knowledge.

      At a lower level of skilled work are jobs like bulldozer operator, firebrick layer, and hosiery knitting machine operator. Where the skills in (and transferability of skills from) jobs like these are at issue, occupational reference sources or a VS should be consulted as necessary.

      At the upper end of skilled work are jobs like architect, aircraft stress analysis, air-conditioning mechanic, and various professional and executive or managerial occupations. People with highly skilled work backgrounds have a much greater potential for transferability of their skills because potential jobs in which they can use their skills encompass occupations at the same and lower skill levels, through semiskilled occupations. Usually the higher the skill level, the more the potential for transferring skills increases. Consultation with a VS may be necessary to ascertain whether and how these skills are transferable.

  3. Documentation of skills and skill levels.

    1. Sources of job information. A particular job may or may not be identifiable in authoritative reference materials. The claimant is in the best position to describe just what he or she did in PRW, how it was done, what exertion was involved, what skilled or semiskilled work activities were involved, etc. Neither an occupational title by itself nor a skeleton description is sufficient. If the claimant is unable to describe PRW adequately, the employer, a coworker or a member of the family may be able to do so.

      Skills, levels of skills and potential occupations to which skills from PRW may be transferred are for the adjudicator or ALJ to determine (with the assistance, when required, of a VS or occupational reference sources).

    2. Determination of skill levels of past work. In many cases, the skill level of PRW will be apparent simply by comparing job duties with the regulatory definitions of skill levels. This is especially true with most unskilled and most highly skilled work. Job titles, in themselves, are not determinative of skill level. Where it is not apparent, the adjudicator or ALJ should consult vocational reference sources; e.g., the DOT and its supplements. A VS is sometimes required to assist the adjudicator or ALJ in determining the skill level of past work.

  4. Application of the concept of transferability.

    1. How transferability is determined in general. Where transferability is at issue, it is most probable and meaningful among jobs in which: (1) the same or a lesser degree of skill is required, because people are not expected to do more complex jobs than they have actually performed (i.e, from a skilled to a semiskilled or another skilled job, or from one semiskilled to another semiskilled job); (2) the same or similar tools and machines are used; and (3) the same or similar raw materials, products, processes or services are involved. A complete similarity of all these factors is not necessary. There are degrees of transferability ranging from very close similarities to remote and incidental similarities among jobs.

      Generally, the greater the degree of acquired work skills, the less difficulty an individual will experience in transferring skills to other jobs except when the skills are such that they are not readily usable in other industries, jobs and work settings. Reduced residual functional capacity (RFC) and advancing age are important factors associated with transferability because reducedRFC limits the number of jobs within an individual's physical or mental capacity to perform, and advancing age decreases the possibility of making a successful vocational adjustment.

    2. Medical factors and transferability. All functional limitations included in the RFC (exertional and nonexertional) must be considered in determining transferability. For example, exertional limitations may prevent a claimant from operating the machinery or using the tools associated with the primary work activities of his or her PRW. Similarly, environmental, manipulative, postural, or mental limitations may prevent a claimant from performing semiskilled or skilled work activities essential to a job. Examples are watchmakers with hand tremors, house painters with severe allergic reactions to paint fumes, craftsmen who have lost eye-hand coordination, construction machine operators whose back impairments will not permit jolting, and business executives who suffer brain damage which notably lowers their IQ's. These factors as well as the general capacity to perform a broad category of work (e.g., sedentary, light or medium) must be considered in assessing whether or not a claimant has transferable work skills. If an impairment(s) does not permit acquired skills to be used, the issue of transferability of skills can be easily resolved.

    3. Special provisions made for transferability. To find that an individual who is age 55 or over and is limited to sedentary work exertion has skills transferable to sedentary occupations, there must be very little, if any vocational adjustment required in terms of tools, work processes, work settings or the industry. The same is true for individuals who are age 60 and older and are limited to light work exertion. Individuals with these adverse vocational profiles cannot be expected to make a vocational adjustment to substantial changes in work simply because skilled or semiskilled jobs can be identified which have some degree of skill similarity with their PRW. In order to establish transferability of skills for such individuals, the semiskilled or skilled job duties of their past work must be so closely related to other jobs which they can perform that they could be expected to perform these other identified jobs at a high degree of proficiency with a minimal amount of job orientation.

      Generally, where job skills are unique to a specific work process in a particular industry or work setting, e.g., carpenter in the construction industry, skills will not be found to be transferable without the need for more than a minimal vocational adjustment by way of tools, work processes, work settings, or industry. On the other hand, where job skills have universal applicability across industry lines, e.g., clerical, professional, administrative, or managerial types of jobs, transferability of skills to industries differing from past work experience can usually be accomplished with very little, if any, vocational adjustment where jobs with similar skills can be identified as being within an individual's RFC.

      The "Example of a hypothetical case analysis" (item 5) below illustrates a situation where carpentry skills could be considered transferable to light work for an individual of advanced age but not transferable for an individual approaching retirement age because the potential jobs identified would require more than "very little" by way of a vocational adjustment.

      The regulations also provide that when skills are so specialized or have been acquired in such an isolated vocational setting (like many jobs in mining, agriculture or fishing) that they are not readily usable in other industries, jobs, and work settings, they will be considered not transferable. An adjudicator should recognize that transferability of skills is not likely for persons whose past work is unusual or isolated. Some examples are placer miners, beekeepers, or spear fishermen. However, VS assistance may be required for less obviously unusual occupations in isolated vocational settings.

  5. Example of a hypothetical case analysis. A disability applicant worked as a carpenter in the construction industry. As described by the claimant, his job was medium work in terms of the exertional level and skilled work in terms of job complexity. The skilled work functions performed by the claimant in his carpentry job included the study of blueprints, sketches or building plans for information needed in constructing, erecting, installing and repairing structures and fixtures of wood, plywood and wallboard, using saws, planes and other handtools and power tools.

    The applicant was found to be unable to do his PRW because of a cardiovascular impairment with an RFC which prevents medium exertion. There are no other impairments which might cause additional functional limitations and interfere with the transferability of his carpentry skills.

    A decisionmaker in a State agency or in the Office of Hearings and Appeals finds that the former carpenter now has the RFC for at least a full range of light work exertion and that he is age 57, not yet close to retirement age (the age group 60-64 as defined in the regulations). The adjudicator as the finder of fact or the VS as the provider of evidence may be unable to identify closely related light occupations, preferably in the construction industry.

    If unable to do so, he or she would then do further research. The research might show that there are several semiskilled light job possibilities in various worker trait groups and industries. For example, cabinet assembler and hand shaper are "manipulating" occupations in the furniture industry. Rip and groove machine operator is an "operating-controlling" occupation in the furniture industry. Box repairer in the wooden box industry and grader in the woodworking industry are two "sorting, inspecting, measuring and related work" occupations. All of these involve tools, raw materials and activities similar to those of the past carpentry work. The adjudicator alone or with the assistance of a VS is able to establish that the potential occupations exist in significant numbers in the national economy.

    If the decisionmaker were to find that the carpenter has the RFC for a full range of light work exertion but (to change one fact in the example) is closely approaching retirement age, the provision in section 202.00(f) of Appendix 2 requiring little, if any, vocational adjustment would apply. Under the circumstances the VS could state, and the decisionmaker could find, that the claimant's carpentry skills cannot be transferred with very little, if any, vocational adjustment required in terms of tools, work processes, work settings or the industry.

    Should the decision maker find that the former carpenter, at any age, is now limited to sedentary work exertion, he or she would most likely find few occupations performed in the seated position which utilize the specific work skills learned and used in construction carpentry and may be unable to find transferability.

  6. Findings of fact in determinations or decisions involving transferability of skills. When the issue of skills and their transferability must be decided, the adjudicator or ALJ is required to make certain findings of fact and include them in the written decision. Findings should be supported with appropriate documentation.

    When a finding is made that a claimant has transferable skills, the acquired work skills must be identified, and specific occupations to which the acquired work skills are transferable must be cited in the State agency's determination or ALJ's decision. Evidence that these specific skilled or semiskilled jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy should be included (the regulations take administrative notice only of the existence of unskilled sedentary, light, and medium jobs in the national economy). This evidence may be VS statements based on expert personal knowledge or substantiation by information contained in the publications listed in regulations sections 404.1566(d) and 416.966(d). It is important that these findings be made at all levels of adjudication to clearly establish the basis for the determination or decision for the claimant and for a reviewing body including a Federal district court.

EFFECTIVE DATE: Final regulations expanding the vocational factors regulations were published in the Federal Register on November 28, 1978, at 43 FR 55349, effective February 26, 1979. They were rewritten to make them easier to understand and were published on August 20, 1980, at 45 FR 55566. The policies in this PPS also became effective on February 26, 1979.

CROSS-REFERENCES: Program Operations Manual System, Part 4 (Disability Insurance State Manual Procedures) sections DI 2093, 2105.D, 2380.E, 2382, 2384, 2387.B.4. and 5, 2388.B and C, 2389, 2390, 2863 and 3027.C.2.

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