Low residual functional capacity makes it difficult to find transferability.

By David F. Traver

Excerpted from Social Security Disability Advocate’s Handbook

General Principles of Transferability

It generally is to a claimant’s advantage to have past relevant work classified at as low a skill level as possible. (The higher the degree of skill, the more probable it is that the acquired skills can be transferred to other occupations.)

  1. The older the claimant, the more difficult it is to find transferability.

  2. The lower the residual functional capacity, the more difficult it is to find transferability.

  3. Skills are not gained by doing unskilled jobs.

  4. A skill gives a person a special advantage over unskilled workers in the labor market.

  5. A person has no special advantage if he or she is skilled or semi-skilled but can qualify only for unskilled jobs because his or her skills cannot be used to any significant degree in other jobs.

  6. Skills do not transfer to unskilled jobs.

  7. Skills acquired in semi-skilled occupations having SVP levels of 3 and 4 generally do not transfer to other occupations because they are little more than unskilled to begin with. Therefore, close attention must be paid to the actual complexities of the job in dealing with data, people, or objects — see the middle three digits of the 9-digit DOT code — and to the judgments required to do the work. (See the discussion of the occupation of nurse aide in SSR 82-41.)

  8. Some job skills may have universal applicability across industries, i.e., job skills from clerical, professional, administrative, or managerial types of jobs. In such cases, where jobs with similar skills can be identified as being within an individual’s RFC, transferability of skills to jobs in industries differing from those of past work experience can usually be accomplished with very little, if any, vocational adjustment.

Cross-Examination of Vocational Expert

ALJ:   Mr. Jobbs, assume the claimant has a high school education completed in the remote past. Assume she has a past-relevant work history as a nurse aide which you have just identified. Further, assume the claimant is 57 years old and limited to sedentary work. Mr. Jobbs, can the claimant perform her past-relevant work?

VE:    No, Your Honor, she cannot. As I testified, her past-relevant work was performed at the medium exertional level, and your hypothetical limits her to the sedentary exertional level. She cannot perform her past-relevant work given your stated limitations.

ALJ:   Mr. Jobbs, given the same hypothetical assumptions, are there any occupations to which the claimant is able to transfer acquired work skills? If there are, would you please state the incidence of jobs in those occupations in the national economy?

VE:    Yes, Your Honor. She can transfer her acquired work skills to the occupations of surveillance system monitor, telephone answering service operator, and telephone solicitor. There are 6 million jobs in these occupations in the national economy.

ALJ:   Counsel, do you have any questions to ask the VE?

Counsel:    I certainly do, Your Honor. Mr. Jobbs, you’ve just testified that the claimant can transfer skills to the occupation of surveillance system monitor. Is that correct?

VE:    Yes, it is Counsel.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, you also testified that the claimant can transfer skills to the occupation of telephone answering service operator. Is that correct?

VE:    That, too, is correct, Counsel.

Counsel:    And finally, Mr. Jobbs, you’ve just testified that the claimant can transfer skills to the occupation of telephone solicitor. Is that correct?

VE:    It is.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, isn’t it true that the occupation of surveillance system monitor has an SVP level of 2 and is classified as an unskilled occupation? Isn’t it also true that the claimant cannot possibly transfer skills to that occupation because, by definition, skills do not transfer to unskilled occupations?

VE:    That’s correct Counsel. When I testified earlier, I was speaking of transferable skills in a non-technical sense. In other words, I meant that the claimant had the general aptitudes and abilities to perform this occupation.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, isn’t it true that the claimant’s past occupation of nurse aide has an SVP level of 4 and is classified as a semi-skilled occupation?

VE:    That is correct, Counsel.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, the claimant testified that in her job as a nurse aide, she performed job tasks such as dusting and cleaning rooms, changing bed linens, and bathing, dressing and undressing patients. She also testified that she took and recorded the temperature, rates of pulse and respiration; and recorded food and liquid intake and output once during the middle of her shift and once at the end of her shift. Is that a fair summary of her testimony Mr. Jobbs?

VE:    That’s correct Counsel; she did so testify.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, ordinarily, performing tasks such as dusting and cleaning rooms, changing bed linens, and bathing, dressing and undressing patients does not provide a worker any special advantage over unskilled workers. Isn’t that true?

VE:    It is indeed, Counsel.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, the only duties the claimant performed as a nurse aide which suggest transferable skills are those related to “nurse” rather than “aide.” In other words, taking and recording the rates of temperature, pulse and respiration; and recording food and liquid intake and output. However, these occasional or incidental parts of the overall nurse aide job, which are a small part of a higher skilled job (nurse), would not ordinarily give a meaningful vocational advantage over unskilled workers. Isn’t that true Mr. Jobbs?

VE:    That is true Counsel.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, although the claimant performed semi-skilled work, the skills associated with her past occupation do not give her a meaningful vocational advantage over unskilled workers. Isn’t that true?

VE:    I’d have to say it is, Counsel.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, isn’t it true that the semi-skilled occupations of telephone answering service operator and telephone solicitor are entry level occupations for which prior skills are not necessary? And isn’t it also true that the content of work activities in those two semi-skilled occupations is little more than unskilled?

VE:    I’d have to say that those two occupations are entry level, yes.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, please answer my last question as well. Isn’t it also true that the content of work activities in those two semi-skilled occupations is little more than unskilled?

VE:    Yes, Counsel, the content of work activities in those two semi-skilled occupations is little more than unskilled. That conclusion naturally follows from my testimony that the two occupations are entry level occupations.

Counsel:    Mr. Jobbs, I haven’t asked you whether these other occupations you’ve identified would require very little, if any, vocational adjustment in terms of tools, work processes, work settings or the industry. Nor have I addressed whether the semi-skilled job duties of the claimant’s past work are so closely related to those of these other occupations you’ve identified such that the claimant could be expected to perform these other identified occupations at a high degree of proficiency with a minimal amount of job orientation. Do you have opinions on these issues, Mr. Jobbs?

VE:    Your honor, I will modify my earlier testimony at this point. Upon reflection, I’d have to state that the, uh — the claimant does not have transferable skills, and, uh — I am unable to identify any skilled or semi-skilled sedentary occupations she is vocationally qualified to perform given her age, education, and past work experience.

ALJ:   Given that testimony Counsel, I will be issuing a fully favorable decision in this case finding that the claimant is disabled pursuant to medical-vocational rule 201.06.

Counsel:    Thank you, Your Honor. I have nothing further.


David F. Traver has represented hundreds of claimants at SSA and over 200 claimants in U.S. District Courts.  He has bachelor and master degrees in vocational rehabilitation, and is the author of Social Security Disability Advocate’s Handbook, from which this article is excerpted.