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.

When you apply for Social Security disability, one of the factors in whether Social Security thinks there is 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 provide the names of other jobs you might be able to do that require the same level of skill as your past work.

(The SSA only gets to this point of the analysis if the agency has determined whether your condition meets a disability listing and whether you can do your past job.)

How Are Skill Levels Defined?

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

The SSA classifies the different skill levels of jobs into the following categories:

  • 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 is how the SSA defines the following types of work:

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 does not help a person gain work skills. Unskilled work often requires strength, but not always.

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 and pay attention to detail and/or protecting against risks. A job that requires hands and feet to be moved 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 learn a semi-skilled job.

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 may also include reading specifications, measuring, estimating, and making calculations. Skilled work can include jobs that require a person to work closely with others, or 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.

One way the SSA will decide the skill level of your past work is how you describe your job functions to them. This means that you must be accurate when you tell the SSA about your duties and responsibilities, and how long you took to learn your job. For more information, see our articles on the importance of describing your past work.

What Is Specific Vocational Preparation?

To determine the skill level of your past jobs, the SSA uses its Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) rating. SVP ratings indicate how long it takes a worker to learn how to do his or her job at an average performance level. The SVP numbers assigned to each job have been pre-determined by the Department of Labor (DOL).

SVP numbers do not include the time it takes a new employee to become accustomed to a job, but the actual training. The specific vocational training used to determine an SVP includes training done in:

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

There are nine SVP levels; the higher the SVP number the more training needed to learn the job. The SVP levels represent the following amount of training.

SVP

Amount of Training Required to Learn Job

SVP 1

a short demonstration

SVP 2

up to one month

SVP 3

up to three months

SVP 4

three months to six months

SVP 5

six months to one year

SVP 6

one to two years

SVP 7

two to four years

SVP 8

four to ten years

SVP 9

over ten years

Here is how the SSA 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.

The Dictionary of Occupational Titles lists an SVP or SVP range for each job listed.

How Does the SSA Use Skill Levels and SVP Numbers?

First, the SSA uses the SVP level assigned to your past work to determine its skill level. Next, the SSA uses the skill level of your last job to see what other work you could do. If your past work is unskilled, you will only be qualified to perform unskilled work. If your past work is semi-skilled, you may be able to perform semi-skilled or unskilled work. This means that the higher your skill level of your past work, the harder it may be to win your claim.

For older workers (age 50 and over), skill levels are especially important because it can enable them to use the “grids” to win their claim. The “grids” are a set of tables that the SSA uses to decide if a person is disabled, based on his or her age, physical capacity, education, skill level of past work experience, and whether any skills from past jobs are transferable. For more information, see our section on Social Security's medical-vocational grids.

Contact a Disability Attorney for Help

The skill level and SVP of your past work can be a key aspect to winning your claim for disability. If the SSA has denied your disability claim because the agency says you can do other work, you can appeal and use job skills and levels as a basis for overturning the claims examiner's decision. You should contact an experienced disability attorney to discuss your case and see how your claim may be affected by your past work. To find an attorney in your area, you can use our disability attorney locator tool.

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