When Social Security Will Deny You Disability Because Your Past Job Skills Are Transferable

If you have job skills that Social Security believes you could use in another line of work, you'll likely be denied disability benefits.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law

If your past work was considered skilled or semiskilled, you're applying for disability benefits, you should understand 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 knowing a work activity that requires the use of judgment. The regulation notes that a skill gives an employee "a special advantage over unskilled workers in the labor market." 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.

What Makes a Skill Transferable?

For skills to be "transferable," an individual must be able to apply knowledge or techniques learned in past jobs to other skilled or semiskilled work. (You cannot get transferable skills from an unskilled job, and you cannot transfer skills to an unskilled job.)

A person who has worked as an administrative clerk, a semiskilled position, might have acquired skills such as typing, filing, or operating office equipment that could transfer to other sorts of office jobs. Because those skills could give a job applicant 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

According to a rule clarification issued by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in 2014, some common occupations involving skills that could transfer to other light or sedentary (sit-down) jobs include the following:

  • auto mechanic
  • assembly worker
  • clerical worker
  • cook
  • electrician
  • heavy equipment operator
  • inspector
  • law enforcement
  • machining
  • maintenance tech
  • master carpenter
  • nursing
  • plumbing
  • sales, or
  • supervisor.
Social Security noted that a nurse's aide usually does not acquire transferable skills, but the analysis will depend on the exact duties performed. Further, it was noted that the ability to drive is not a skill, and thus truck drivers don't possess transferable skills, and that mining, fishing, and agricultural work generally do not involve skills that readily transfer to other work.

The Disability Evaluation Process and Transferability of Skills

If your medical situation meets or equals one of the serious conditions found in Social Security's Listing of Impairments (the "Blue Book"), you'll be found disabled automatically. Or, if your condition allows you to perform past relevant work, you will not be found disabled. In these cases, Social Security won't assess whether you have transferable skills.

Transferable skills come into play only in disability cases involving skilled and semiskilled workers age 50 and older. When these workers can't do their past work, they are evaluated under SSA's Medical-Vocational Rules ("the grid rules"). The grid rules can provide the basis for a successful disability claim for certain older individuals who would struggle to re-enter the labor market due to the combination of their age, educational level, work experience, and residual functional capacity (RFC). For example, under the grid rules direct a 55-year-old with a ninth-grade education, unskilled work history, and sedentary RFC would be found disabled even if he or she could theoretically perform some full-time job. The logical underpinning of the grid rules is that older, physically limited workers who possess little education or vocational skills are more or less unemployable in today's labor market.

In many situations, transferable skills can prevent a finding of disability under the grid rules. But Social Security is supposed to take an individual's mental and physical limitations into account when determining a person's skills are truly transferable. 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. You or your attorney should make sure Social Security's vocational expert (VE) considers how a person's mental and physical impairments could affect the transferability of skills.

If a judge or disability claims examiner finds that you possess transferable skills, he or she must include "findings of fact" in the disability determination stating which skills you've acquired and to which occupations your skills are transferable. These findings generally need to be based on vocational expert testimony. Most claimants with a skilled or semiskilled work history hire a disability attorney who can cross-examine the vocational expert on the important issue of transferability of skills.

Because transferable skills are not the deciding factor in most disability cases, many VEs are not well-versed in Social Security's regulations on this issue. Some VEs erroneously classify traits such as "attention to detail" or "good coordination" as skills. Others might testify, contrary to SSA regulations, that highly specialized skills such as sewing, or regionally specific skills such as logging or fishing, 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 get you approved under the grids.

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