Will Social Security Deny You Disability If You Have Transferable Job Skills?

Learn what transferable skills are, which jobs impart transferable skills, and what happens when Social Security says that you can use those skills at another job.

By , J.D. University of Missouri School of Law
Reviewed by Diana Chaikin, Attorney Seattle University School of Law
Updated 7/01/2024

Disability applicants ("claimants") 50 years of age or older can have an easier time qualifying for Social Security benefits under a special set of rules known as the medical-vocational grid. Under the grid rules, you may be eligible for disability—even if you're physically capable of performing some kinds of work—if you can't do your past work and you don't have any "transferable skills."

Social Security reviews your employment history for the past five years to determine if any of the jobs you performed are considered "skilled" or "semiskilled." These are the types of jobs where you can acquire transferable skills. (Unskilled jobs, by definition, don't provide transferable skills.) So if your past work was considered skilled or semiskilled, you should know how having transferable skills could impact your chances of a successful disability claim.

Social Security Regulations on Transferability of Skills

According to Social Security Regulation 82-41, a skill is defined as "knowledge of a work activity which requires the use of significant judgment." The regulation notes that a skill gives an employee "a special advantage over unskilled workers in the labor market." Essentially, a skill involves learning a particular job procedure and recognizing when (and how) to do it correctly.

Some examples of skills include:

  • making exact measurements
  • setting up and operating complex machinery
  • training or supervising others
  • reading blueprints
  • typing
  • filing documents, and
  • conducting inventory.

In order to acquire transferable skills, you'll need to have performed the job duties long enough to learn how to do them. The time it takes to be considered "long enough" varies significantly depending on the type of job. Some semiskilled jobs can impart transferable skills after only one month of training, while very highly skilled jobs can take several months or even years before the skills are fully developed.

What Makes a Skill Transferable?

For skills to be "transferable," you must be able to apply the knowledge or techniques learned from your past jobs to other skilled or semiskilled work. You can't get transferable skills from an unskilled job, and you can't transfer skills to an unskilled job.

For example, somebody who has worked as an administrative clerk—a semiskilled position—might have acquired skills such as typing, filing, or operating office equipment that they could then use in other sorts of office jobs. Because those skills could give them a "special advantage" in the labor market over an unskilled worker, Social Security's rules make it more difficult for those with transferable skills to be found disabled.

Common Jobs That Often Involve Transferable Skills

The more skilled your past jobs are, the more likely you'll be found to have transferable skills. Skilled jobs have a specific vocational preparation (SVP) number of 5 or more, meaning they take at least six months to learn how to do properly. Semiskilled jobs have an SVP of 3 or 4, meaning they take anywhere between one and six months to learn how to perform.

Semiskilled jobs are often in the retail or service industries, and as such tend to be performed in public settings. Certain types of cashiers, restaurant servers, bartenders, and desk clerks are classified as semiskilled according to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, a Department of Labor publication heavily used by Social Security. These jobs often involve skills such as supervising other employees or using computer programs that can be used in other environments.

Skilled jobs come in a wide variety of occupations and usually involve specialized tools or settings. Auto mechanics, bakers, and electricians (and, frequently, their assistants) are some examples of skilled jobs. Due to the more technical nature of these skills, they are less likely—although not impossible—to transfer to other work. A plumber is unlikely to be able to use their skills in an office setting, for example.

Determining the exact nature of your job skills and whether they are transferable to other work often requires the help of a vocational expert at a disability hearing. Social Security can often make mistakes about the type of work you did that don't always get straightened out until after several appeals. For more information, see our article on how Social Security determines the skill level of your past jobs.

The Disability Evaluation Process and Transferability of Skills

Transferable skills only come into play in cases involving skilled and semiskilled workers age 50 and older, and even then only at the last step of the sequential evaluation process for determining disability. If your medical condition meets or equals a listed impairment, you'll be found disabled automatically, and Social Security won't need to review your work history. Or, if your residual functional capacity allows you to perform your old job, you won't be found disabled regardless of whether you have transferable skills.

People who are at least 50 years old who can't do their past work are evaluated under the medical-vocational grid rules. The idea behind the grid rules is that it's harder for people nearing retirement age to re-enter the workforce or switch careers than it would be for a younger person. The rules use a combination of your functional limitations, age, education, and transferable skills to determine whether a finding of disability is "directed" (meaning there's no leeway in discretion).

For example, the grid rules direct a finding that a 55-year-old with a ninth-grade education, unskilled work history, and sedentary RFC must be disabled, even if they could theoretically perform some full-time job. It's one of the few areas where Social Security takes into consideration the realities of the labor market—an older worker with significant physical limitations, little education, and no vocational skills isn't likely to be hired for a job over a younger, stronger worker with more skills.

According to the grid rules, you can't get a directed finding of disability at any age if you have transferable skills. But Social Security is required to take any mental limitations into account when determining if your skills are actually transferable. For example, a construction worker who experiences cognitive decline due to a traumatic brain injury may no longer be able to read blueprints or operate heavy machinery, even if those skills would ordinarily be classified as transferable.

Showing That Your Past Job Skills Aren't Transferable

If a judge or disability claims examiner finds that you possess transferable skills, they must specifically state in their disability determination which skills you've acquired and to which occupations your skills are transferable. These findings generally need to be based on vocational expert testimony, which almost always occurs during a disability hearing with an administrative law judge.

At the hearing, you (or your representative) will have the opportunity to cross-examine the vocational expert about whether your skills really would transfer to other jobs. Often, this includes citing medical evidence showing that you're limited to unskilled work, reclassifying your past jobs to reflect the correct SVP skill level, or proving that you didn't do the job long enough to acquire transferable skills.

Legal Representation Can Be Critical

Because cross-examining the vocational expert can be very difficult if you're not familiar with Social Security's rules or the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, most claimants with a skilled or semiskilled work history hire a disability attorney who can conduct a proper cross-examination.

As transferable skills aren't the determining factor in most disability cases, many experts aren't well-versed in Social Security's regulations on this issue. Some vocational experts wrongly state that traits such as "attention to detail" or "good coordination" count as skills. Others might testify—contrary to agency regulations—that highly specialized skills such as sewing, or regionally specific skills such as logging, could transfer to other occupations.

An experienced disability attorney who understands Social Security's regulations on transferability of skills will be able to pick apart this sort of VE testimony to improve your chances of getting benefits using the grids. If you're not sure where to start searching for a lawyer, check out our article on how to find a good disability lawyer.

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