How Social Security Defines Skilled and Unskilled Work: SVPs

Making sure Social Security classifies your prior job at the right skill level can help you win disability.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law

When you apply for Social Security disability, one of the factors the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses to determine whether there's less demanding work you can do is the skill level of your last job. Social Security will use the skill level of your last job to create a list of other jobs you might be able to do that require the same level of skill as your past work.

Social Security only gets to this point of the determination process after the disability examiner has answered both of the following questions:

If the answer to both questions is no, the disability claims examiner moves on to the final step in the process: determining if there's any kind of work you can still be expected to do. That's where your prior job skills come into play.

How Are Skill Levels Defined?

Social Security defines a skill as knowledge of a task that requires judgment and is obtained through job performance. In simpler terms, skills are what you learned on the job that you needed to know to make the right decisions or use the right techniques to get your work done.

Social Security classifies jobs by skill level (20 C.F.R. § 404.1568 and 20 C.F.R. §404.968). There are three levels:

  • unskilled
  • semi-skilled, and
  • skilled.

Generally, a job's skill level is classified by how long it takes to learn the work and the qualities and characteristics of the specific job. Here's how Social Security defines the three skill levels.

Social Security's Definition of Unskilled Work

Unskilled work requires little or no judgment to perform simple tasks and can usually be learned in less than a month. Doing unskilled work doesn't help a person gain work skills. Unskilled work often requires strength, but not always.

Social Security's Definition of Semi-skilled Work

Semi-skilled work requires some skills but doesn't include complex job functions. Semi-skilled work usually requires the ability to remain alert, pay attention to detail, and sometimes protect against risks.

A job that requires you to move your hands and feet quickly (involving coordination and dexterity) to do a repetitive task can be classified as semi-skilled. It usually takes between three and six months to fully learn a semi-skilled job.

Social Security's Definition of Skilled Work

Skilled work requires specific qualifications, the use of judgment, and knowing how to perform mechanical or manual tasks to create a product or material (or provide a service). Skilled work can also include the following:

  • reading specifications
  • measuring
  • estimating, and
  • making calculations.

Skilled work can include jobs that require you to work closely with others. Skilled work might also involve working with figures, facts, or ideas that require complex, abstract, or critical thinking. It takes at least six months and often many years to train for and learn a skilled job.

How Does Social Security Determine Skill Level?

One way Social Security decides the skill level of your past work is how you describe your job functions to them. (SSR 82-441 3(a).) How accurately you describe your duties and responsibilities and the length of time it took to learn your job can affect your claim.

(Learn more about the importance of describing your past work accurately.)

What Is a Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) Rating?

To determine the skill level of your past jobs, Social Security uses Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) ratings. SVP ratings indicate how long it takes someone to learn how to do a particular job at an average performance level. The United States Department of Labor (DOL) determines the SVP numbers assigned to each job using information gathered by its Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

SVP numbers don't include the time it takes a new employee to become accustomed to a job—just the actual training time. The specific vocational training used to determine an SVP can include the following types of training:

  • organized in-plant training
  • on-the-job training by another qualified employee
  • apprenticeships
  • vocational schools
  • the military, or
  • experience learned in other jobs.

How Do SVP Rating Levels Relate to Skill Level?

There are nine SVP levels—the higher the SVP number, the more training you need to learn the job. The SVP levels represent the following amount of training.

Specific Vocational Preparation

Amount of Training Required to Learn Job

Skill Level of Work


a short demonstration



up to one month



up to three months



three months to six months



six months to one year



one to two years



two to four years



four to ten years



over ten years


Here's how Social Security uses these SVP ratings to determine skill level:

  • Jobs with SVP ratings of 1 or 2 are considered unskilled.
  • Jobs with SVP ratings of 3 or 4 are considered semi-skilled.
  • Jobs with SVPs greater than 4 are skilled.

Education can substitute for job training. A four-year college degree is the equivalent of two years of SVP, and every year of graduate school is an additional one year of SVP.

How Does Social Security Use Skill Levels and SVP Numbers?

Social Security uses your job's SVP rating to determine your skill level (see above). For example, if your past job as an attendant at an automated car wash has an SVP rating of two, that would be an unskilled job. But if you worked as a warehouse storeroom clerk, the SVP rating of four would make it a semi-skilled job. Social Security then considers the skill level of your past jobs to see what other work you have the skill to do.

How the Skill Levels of Your Past Jobs Matter

If your past work is unskilled, Social Security will consider you qualified only to perform unskilled work. If your past jobs had an SVP rating for semi-skilled work, that probably means you have the skills to perform both semi-skilled and unskilled work. And if you're a skilled worker, you should be able to do many semi-skilled and unskilled jobs. The more jobs you can do, the less likely it is that you're disabled.

Could You Use Your Job Skills at Work That You're Physically Capable of Doing?

But before Social Security can decide you have skills to do other work (perhaps less physically demanding sit-down work), the agency has to consider which of your skills you could actually use in another job. Whether your skills are "transferable" to other jobs depends on how similar the essential functions of other jobs are to your past work. In determining which skills transfer, Social Security will consider many factors, such as:

  • your past work environment
  • the types of tasks you performed
  • the tools you used, and
  • the types of materials you worked with.

(Learn more about when job skills are considered transferable to other jobs.)

If you have the skills to perform a more complex task, Social Security will generally assume you can do a similar but simpler task. For example, let's say in your last job, you worked as a grocery store manager. If you used a computer to balance the cash register drawers (a skilled task), Social Security will likely assume you can count change (an unskilled task).

So, the higher the skill level of your past work, the harder it might be to prove you can no longer do any kind of work, making winning your disability claim more difficult. But that's not always the case.

Job Skills Are Key for Older Workers

For older workers (age 50 and over), skill levels are especially important because of Social Security's "grid rules." The "grids" are a set of tables that the SSA uses to decide if someone qualifies as disabled based on skill level and past work experience. The grids also take into account your:

  • age
  • physical and mental capacity (RFC), and
  • education level.

Winning your disability claim becomes easier under the grid rules because Social Security doesn't expect older workers—those nearing full retirement age—to be able to adapt to new careers as easily as younger workers.

Learn more about Social Security's medical-vocational grids.

Consider Contacting a Disability Attorney for Help

The skill level and SVP rating of your past work can be key factors for winning your disability claim. What if Social Security agrees that you can no longer do your prior job but says there's other work you have the skills to do and, thus, denies your disability claim?

You can appeal the denial and use SVP levels and a lack of transferable job skills as a basis for overturning a claims examiner's decision. But you might want to contact an experienced disability attorney or disability law firm to discuss your case and see how your past jobs—and their SVP ratings—could affect your claim.

Learn more about how lawyers handle disability claims and appeals.

Updated October 26, 2023

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