When Transferable Job Skills Can Prevent You From Getting Social Security Disability

If you have skills you could transfer to another type of job, you'll be denied disability.

At most jobs, people learn certain skills needed to do their work. Sometimes these skills are specialized and can only be used at that particular job. Frequently, however, people develop skills that can be used in other types of jobs. These are called transferable skills. If you can't do your past job but you have skills that you could transfer to a less demanding job, Social Security is not likely to find you disabled.

When Transferable Skills Matter

First, transferable skills don't come into play if your past work was "unskilled." They matter for those who worked in skilled or semi-skilled jobs (those that take at least three months to learn).

Whether you acquired skills you can transfer also doesn't matter for people who are approved automatically for disability because they have a qualifying condition under Social Security's listing of impairments.

Most people’s illnesses, however, don’t meet the rigid guidelines of the listings. In these cases, Social Security decides whether the claimant can do his or her past work or whether there is there any other work he or she is qualified for. If the answer is yes to either of these questions, the claim will be denied.

If you are older than 50 or 55, in determining whether you can adjust to another type of work, Social Security will look to see whether you fit into one of its medical-vocational rules (the "grid" rules) that say applicants with certain factors are disabled. One of the ways Social Security decides whether you fit into a medical-vocational rule is to see whether you learned any skills in your past work that you could transfer to another position. More on this below.

If you are younger than 50 or you don't fit into a grid rule for another reason, the SSA will decide whether there are any jobs you can do that fit within your limitations.

How Transferable Skills Relate to the Grid Rules

When an older claimant (generally 55 and above) files for disability, the SSA can use something called the medical-vocational "grid rules” to determine his or her eligibility for disability. The grids may make it easier for older claimants to be approved, if the claimant has no transferable skills from a past job.

The grids are organized by claimants' residual functional capacity (RFC) levels, which state what exertional level the claimant can work at (heavy, medium, light, or sedentary). The grids also use age, education, and skill level of the claimant's past work to decide if a claimant is disabled. If you have transferable skills that you can use at another job, you cannot be found disabled under the grids. Here's an example.

  • A 57-year-old claimant applied for disability due to lower and thoracic back pain. Her only work had been as a horse trainer. The SSA determined that because of the unique skills of the position, her horse training skills were not transferable to another position. Given the claimant’s age, her restriction to a sit-down job, and the fact that she had no transferable skills, she was approved for disability under the grid rules for 55 to 59-year-olds.
If the claimant in the above example did have skills that could transfer to another job (say the SSA said she could teach animal training courses), then she would have been found "not disabled." At ages 50 and above, the whole outcome of your case can rest on whether you have skills that you can transfer to a job at the exertional level dictated by your RFC.

The grid chart for each age and RFC lays out when someone without transferable skills is disabled. For more information, see our articles on the grid rules and on RFCs.

Are Skills Relevant for Those Who Fall Outside of the Grid?

If you are younger than 50, or your situation doesn't fit into a specific grid rule, the SSA will use your RFC and your past work history to see if there are other types of jobs you can adjust to. In most cases where you don't fit into a grid rule, the SSA will find that you can adjust to a different, less demanding type of job. The SSA just has to show that you can do any kind of easy, unskilled work, so transferable skills don't matter.

But if your RFC limits you to sedentary work and you have limitations that narrow the range of sit-down jobs you can do (for instance, you need to be able to sit and stand at will), there may be actually few unskilled jobs available to you. In that case, the SSA might look to see whether you have any past job skills you could transfer to a new type of job. If you have transferable skills that your condition doesn’t prevent you from using, it is more likely that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will decide you can do other work and will deny your claim.

You may need a lawyer to represent you at your disability hearing to show you don't have skills that could transfer to another job. Read on to learn more about when the SSA will say that your job skills are transferable.

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