What Are Transferable Skills for Social Security Disability Purposes?

Skills that you learn from a job that can be used across many fields of work are considered transferable skills.

By , J.D., University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

Many jobs will train employees on certain skills needed to perform the job duties. Sometimes, these skills are specialized and can only be used at that particular job. But people frequently develop skills that can be used in other types of jobs. These are called transferable skills.

Even if you're unable to return to your past work, if you learned skills that you could transfer to another type of job, Social Security can't find that you're disabled.

What Does Social Security Consider a Transferable Skill?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines a skill as "knowledge about a job that requires the use of significant judgment." Transferability means being able to use skills learned in past jobs to satisfy the requirements of another job.

It's not always easy to tell what skills are transferable without help from a vocational expert, but generally speaking, skills are likely to transfer from skilled occupations involving many separate tasks, and skills are unlikely to transfer from specialized technical work.

How Will Social Security Decide If My Skills Are Transferable?

Social Security looks at many factors in determining whether you acquired any transferable skills, such as:

  • the types of tools you used at your job
  • the types of tasks or processes involved in your work
  • the work environment, and
  • the degree of judgment required beyond carrying out simple duties.

The agency can only look at your past relevant work when determining whether you have transferable skills—any skills you learned for a hobby or as a volunteer can't be considered—so making sure your work is classified properly is very important.

Classification of Your Past Work

The SSA classifies occupations into three categories according to how long it takes to learn how to perform the job—skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled. Unskilled work usually takes less than 30 days to learn, while highly skilled jobs can take over a decade to learn.

Here are some examples of which job tasks are considered skilled and which aren't:

Skilled Tasks Unskilled Tasks
Answering a multi-line telephone Answering a standard telephone or intercom
Assembling complex equipment Assembling basic objects
Using a computer to balance a money drawer Making change
Supervising employees Greeting customers

Doing an unskilled job doesn't provide you with transferable skills, and you can't transfer skills from a simpler, semi-skilled job to a more complex skilled job.

Medical Limitations

Whether your skills are transferable partly depends on how your severe impairments affect your ability to perform those skills. If you can't perform your skills any longer because of your medical condition, Social Security won't find that your skills can transfer.

But if your condition doesn't interfere with your ability to perform a skill, Social Security can consider that skill to be transferable.

Work Setting and Specific Nature of the Job

Some jobs—such as mining, fishing, and farming—are performed in what the SSA calls an "isolated vocational setting." Although these jobs require significant skill, the skills acquired aren't easily used in other positions or work settings outside their specific industry.

Other jobs require skills that are so specific to a particular industry that those skills can't be transferred to another job.

General Applicability of the Job

Administrative, clerical, and professional positions typically involve skills that can be used across many different fields, such as organizing data and using a computer. Unless your medical condition keeps you from performing these skills, Social Security will generally find that they're transferable to other types of work.

When Do Transferable Skills Matter?

Transferable skills really only come into play for disability applicants 50 years of age or older who might qualify for disability under the medical-vocational grid rules. Social Security doesn't expect you to make a significant career change when you're nearing full retirement age, so whether your skills transfer to other work can make the difference between an approval or denial.

How Transferable Skills Relate to the Grid Rules

The medical-vocational grid rules (or simply "the grids") can make it easier for older applicants to get disability, provided they don't have any transferable skills from a past job.

The grid rules are organized according to the physical exertional level of your residual functional capacity (RFC), which represents the most you're capable of doing in a work environment. (In the grids, this is referred to as having a "maximum sustained work capability" limited to medium, light, or sedentary jobs.) (Social Security Act, Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2.)

Each exertional level is then further divided by age, education, and transferable skills. Social Security then combines these physical limitations and vocational factors to determine whether you're disabled.

Keep in mind that, in the above example, if Tilda did have transferable skills—perhaps Social Security found she could teach animal training courses—then she wouldn't have been found disabled. At ages 50 and above, the outcome of your case is highly dependent on whether you have skills that can transfer to a job within the exertional limitations of your RFC.

Do Transferable Skills Matter Outside of the Grid Rules?

For most people under the age of 50, whether you have transferable skills doesn't matter because the SSA will assume that you have enough work years before full retirement age to learn new skills. Instead, the agency will need to determine whether you can do any kind of easy, unskilled work, so transferable skills aren't an issue. And applicants (of any age) who meet the requirements of a listed impairment can qualify for disability automatically regardless of whether they've acquired transferable skills.

Getting Help With Transferable Skills

If you're 50 years old or older, you should contact an experienced disability attorney to discuss how your job skills can impact your chances of winning your claim. At your disability hearing, an attorney can help show the judge that your skills can't be transferred to another type of job or that you can no longer perform the tasks that require the skills. You also may need an attorney to cross-examine and challenge the SSA's vocational expert as to what skills you acquired at your last job.

Updated August 8, 2023

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