What Are Transferable Skills for Social Security Disability Purposes?

Some jobs have skills that can be used across many fields of work. These skills are frequently acquired in administrative, clerical, or professional positions.

By , Contributing Author

If you have skills you could transfer to another type of job, Social Security will deny you disability. (Read the first part of this article on when transferable skills matter.) It's helpful to understand the SSA's definition of "skill" and "transferable." Here are the SSA's definitions for both:

  • A skill is knowledge about a job that requires the use of significant judgment. Skills are learned by doing work that is above the unskilled level.
  • Transferability refers to the ability to use skills learned in past jobs to satisfy the requirements of another skilled or semi-skilled position. Skills learned at a semi-skilled job cannot be transferred to a skilled job.

Here are some examples of transferable skills:

  • supervising others
  • teaching or training
  • assembling complex parts
  • using construction equipment
  • taking inventory
  • typing
  • managing money, and
  • filing and organizing information.

How Will the SSA Decide Whether My Skills are Transferable?

Social Security bases the decision whether you have skills you can use at another job on many different factors.

Classification of Your Past Work

The first thing the SSA will do to decide if you have any transferable skills is to classify your past work as unskilled, semi-skilled, or skilled. Once the skill level is determined, the SSA will then use the factors discussed below to determine what, if any, of the skills you acquired are transferable. For example, Social Security defines shipping or receiving clerk as a skilled job, because it usually involves clerical work such as "counting, weighing, or measuring items of incoming and outgoing shipments."

A person can acquire skills only from work that is classified as either skilled or semi-skilled. This means that if you only performed unskilled labor, such as sorting at a factory, the SSA will conclude that you have no transferable skills. Unskilled work usually takes less than 30 days to learn.

And again, skills learned at a semi-skilled job can only be transferred to another semi-skilled job. For more information on skill levels, see our article on SSA definitions for skilled and unskilled work.

Medical Limitations

Whether a claimant's skills are transferable partly depends on whether the claimant's impairment affects the ability to perform those skills. If the claimant can no longer perform skills because of the medical condition, the skills are not transferable. However, if the claimant's impairment does not interfere with a skill, it can be considered transferable.

Here are some examples.

  • A claimant filed for disability after suffering a traumatic brain injury. The injury dramatically lowered his IQ. The claimant's past work was as an accountant where he acquired the skills needed to maintain financial records and communicate with and advise clients. Because the claimant could no longer perform these skills, the skills were not transferable to another position.
  • A claimant applied for disability due to high blood pressure and coronary disease. His past work was in carpentry. He acquired the skills to work with his hands to assemble products, sort through small material, and use judgment to determine the proper order of processes. The SSA concluded that his impairments didnot interfere with his ability to use these skills, and that there were other less physically demanding jobs in significant numbers where he could use them.

Work Setting

Some jobs have what the SSA calls an "isolated vocational setting." These are jobs like mining, fishing, and farming. Although these jobs require significant skill, the skills acquired cannot be easily used in other positions or work settings outside their specific industry. Here is an example.

  • The claimant's only work was as a long-line fisherman. He filed for disability due to COPD. Although the claimant acquired numerous skills, including the ability to read charts and operate navigational equipment, the SSA concluded that the "isolated vocational setting" prevented these skills from being transferred to other jobs outside the fishing industry.

Specific Nature of the Job

Some jobs require skills that are so specific to a particular industry that those skills cannot be transferred to another job. Here is an example.

  • The claimant filed for disability due to chronic pitting edema and diabetes mellitus. She worked for over 20 years as a seamstress in a uniform shop. Although her work was skilled, it required the use of sewing techniques and machinery specific to the production of uniforms; therefore, none her sewing skills were transferable to another position, including another sewing position.

General Applicability of the Job

Some jobs have skills that can be used across many fields of work. These skills are frequently acquired in administrative, clerical, or professional positions. Unless the claimant's medical condition prevents him or her from performing them, these skills are usually transferable. Here are some examples.

  • The claimant filed for disability due to arthritis in both knees and lower back pain. His past work had been as a concierge at a hotel. During the job he acquired strong customer service, organizational, and time management skills. His impairments did not interfere with his ability to do perform these skills. These skills are widely transferable to other jobs, and the SSA concluded he could use them in sedentary positions like customer service and secretarial positions.
  • The claimant filed for disability due to hepatitis C. Her past work had been as a courtroom reporter. During her position, she developed keyboard and computer skills, organizational skills, and significant listening skills. Because her impairment did not affect her ability to use these generalized skills, the SSA found that they were transferable and could be used in customer service jobs, clerical and secretarial positions, and data entry positions.

Getting Help With Transferable Skills

If you are 50 years old or older, whether you have transferable skills can be pivotal in your disability case. If your past job was skilled or semi-skilled, you should contact an experienced disability attorney to discuss how your job skills can impact your chances of winning your claim. At your disability appeal hearing, an attorney can help show the SSA 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.

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