When the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers your application for disability benefits, they'll identify not just what you can't do but, also what you can. Your disability may prevent you from performing your former job; however, it might not stop you from engaging in other types of substantial gainful work. SSA adjudicators typically analyze whether you have transferable skills that allow you to earn an income in different fields, roles, or positions despite your impairment. If they find you to have such skills and the capacity to use them in another job, your application for disability benefits is likely to be denied.

What Does the SSA Consider a Skill?

Skills, Abilities, and Knowledge Word BlocksThe SSA defines "skill" as "knowledge of a work activity which requires the exercise of significant judgment that goes beyond the carrying out of simple job duties." It is an ability gained through education or experience and consists of knowledge that takes at least 30 days to acquire. These skills give the learner an advantage in the labor market, particularly over workers who do not have similar skills.

The administration divides job skill levels into three categories:

  • Skilled. Work that uses judgement, critical thinking, and knowledge to execute mechanical tasks, create materials or products, or provide services. These skills generally require six months to a few years to learn. Skilled work can range the gamut of occupations, including office managers, administrative assistants, teachers, travel agents, fast food cooks, and health care providers.
  • Semi-skilled. Work that requires staying alert and the ability to pay attention to detail. It usually takes between three to six months to acquire these skills. Semi-skilled occupations can include retail sales clerks, taxi drivers, security guards, restaurant waitstaff, and nurse's aide.
  • Unskilled. Work that takes less than 30 days to learn and doesn't require critical thinking. Unskilled occupations can include produce picker, parking lot attendant, janitor, messenger, or fast food worker.

When Are Skills Transferable?

The SSA considers skills to be transferable if the knowledge and aptitude learned from past jobs meet the requirements of another vocationally relevant job. The SSA analyzes multiple factors to determine the transferability of your skills, including:

  • The classification of your work experience. The SSA determines whether your work skill level is skilled, semi-skilled, or unskilled. They typically refer to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles in making this assessment. They'll also evaluate how much training your job requires.
  • Medical limitations. The SSA will examine the nature of your impairment and the physical and mental limitations it imposes upon you. If your medical condition prevents you from executing your skills, the skills will not be considered transferrable. Let's say, for example, that your medical condition prevents you from walking, kneeling, or bending over easily. If you are a plumber, the SSA would more likely to find that the injury interferes with your skill and that your skills are not transferrable. However, if you are an accountant, the SSA would be unlikely to find that this medical condition interferes with the execution of your skill.
  • Your Age. Applicants over age 50 tend to have a higher approval rate on disability applications. This increased rate is partly because the SSA believes older people have more difficulty transferring skills, learning new job skills, or engaging in physically strenuous jobs. If you are over 60, your skills will be transferable only if the job is extremely similar to your past occupation and requires very little additional training. If you are younger than 50, however, the SSA expects you to work at any job you are capable of performing, even if it involves retraining.
  • Work Setting. Certain jobs can only be performed in specific settings. If you cannot use your skills outside those work settings, the SSA doesn't consider the skill transferrable. For example, workers in the mining, fishing, and farming industries often do not have transferable skills.

Mistakes to Avoid in Your Disability Benefits Application

In your disability application, you will need to provide information about your job skills and explain why the skills are not transferrable. Unfortunately, many candidates make application-denying mistakes in this critical step, including by failing to:

  • Sufficiently connect their medical limitations to their inability to perform their skill
  • Describe their medical limitations adequately
  • Provide an accurate job description
  • Include up-to-date medical information
  • Make consistent statements about your job skills or limitations

An experienced Boston Social Security disabilities insurance lawyer can ensure that you make the strongest case possible for disability benefits. A skilled lawyer will know how to capably argue that your impairment prevents you from transferring your skills and that receiving disability benefits is the only realistic and fair option for you.

Are You Looking for a Social Security Disability Attorney in Boston?

If you are looking to apply for Social Security disability, you need to speak with an experienced Social Security disability lawyer as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Natick Office directly at 508.283.5500 to schedule your free consultation.


John L. Keefe
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Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer