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Job Information in an Emerging Economy

Designing the Future Standard Occupational Classification

January 1, 1993 / By Mark Drayse, Odessa Dubinsky, Daniel Flaming and Robin Law
Underwriter: Western Area Occupational Analysis Field Center


The charter for this study was to put forward a vision to support emergence of the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) from its current status as a little known, under-utilized system into its intended role as the central framework for integrating national occupational information. This analysis of the SOC was prepared for the Employment Training Administration and Bureau of Labor Statistics of the United States Department of Labor.

Occupational information can assist individuals who have never had a job become employed, it can help those who have lost jobs become reemployed, and it can indicate how those who are employed can become more productive. These outcomes are vital to the public interest and have direct implications for the future structure of occupational classification systems.

Societal interests in workforce outcomes are less polarized than they were in the 1930’s when work began on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. It has become possible and desirable to gather information about workers and jobs that more specifically addresses outcomes for workers that are important to the public. These outcomes include:

  • workforce entry and reentry
  • reemployment
  • career ladders
  • competency identification
  • optimal job matches
  • worker empowerment
  • national comparability of work
  • international comparability of work
  • management of change
  • social mobility
  • research into the following areas:
    • labor market dynamics
    • employment projections
    • link with social statistics
    • historical understanding
    • medical research

There is general compatibility among objectives in the preceding list of societal interests that are affected by the design of occupational classification systems. With several significant exceptions, it is feasible to provide the types of classification information needed to support analysis and programs related to these public interests.

General Issues in Classification

The enterprise of classifying all activity in the wage economy into a system of occupations raises several fundamental questions. Some of the questions are common to all taxonomies, whether they be of stamps, insects or occupations. All classification systems need to specify the distinguishing features that will determine inclusion or exclusion into categories. All systems require decisions about how constituent parts are to be grouped into broader categories. All systems should take into account how they are to be used to sort and organize data collected in the future. In addition, the designers of a system that deals with patterns of behavior (such as occupations) rather than recognizable material objects (such as insects) need to define the basic unit of analysis.

Consequently, we can distinguish four conceptually different tasks in designing an occupational classification system. They are:

  1. selecting variables by which to define, cluster and describe occupations;
  2. defining occupations;
  3. aggregating occupations into a system of nested hierarchies; and
  4. designing the database (designating the information to be indexed to the occupational categories).

Principles and Goals

The future SOC should be shaped to provide information that will help achieve high priority social goals for the workforce. Our recommendations for the future SOC cover issues of system structure, information content, and application. Particular attention is given to streamlining the occupational classification system; emphasizing skills, authority and work fields in choosing variables and classifying occupations; and making occupational and labor market information more compatible and widely used.

Core Recommendations

Structure: Integrate the DOT and SOC into a single system in which the SOC provides occupational information, with additional and more detailed information provided at the DOT level.

Content: Classify occupations on the basis of skills, authority, and work fields.

Uses: Simplify the connection between occupational, labor market, social and demographic information by using the revised SOC unit group as the main occupational unit.

Priority Rankings for Public Interests

Most Important:

  • Helping individuals with barriers to employment obtain jobs
  • Helping displaced workers become reemployed
  • Identifying essential competencies needed for employment
  • Making optimal matches between jobs and workers

Very Important:

  • Identifying career advancement opportunities for workers
  • Helping students and workers make good career choices
  • Providing current labor market information
  • Making labor market projections
  • Integrating occupational data with other information about the work force


  • Historical, international and medical research

Integrating Data from Multiple Sources

A potential strength of the SOC is its use in connecting the wealth of occupational information collected by job analysis with the employment statistics and demographic information collected through surveys and the Census. Interconnection of these data sources will have a synergistic effect in increasing the power and use of this information. For example, this data integration would provide “real time” information about the following kinds of issues:

  • career transition paths
  • outcomes for displaced workers
  • job stability in specific occupations
  • earnings patterns in specific occupations
  • worker attributes associated with obtaining employment in specific occupations
  • worker attributes associated with retaining employment in specific occupations
  • worker attributes associated with upward mobility
  • demographic characteristics of workers in specific occupations
  • occupational distribution of unemployed workers and ratios of employed to unemployed workers in each occupation.
  • occupations in which job creation is occurring
  • critical skill shortages which constrain industry growth
  • changes in occupational composition of specific industries
  • interrelationships between changes in occupational structure and changes in industry employment levels and skill requirements
    A primary test of the usefulness of occupational information is its power to provide a plausible, grounded account of the actual experience of workers. Just as a job should connect an individual’s activities with a larger group of workers and their activities, and that in turn with the output of a product or service that is valued by a changing society, a useful description of that job should reflect significant characteristics of the worker, the activity, and processes of change. Important public interests rest on the capacity of the future SOC to help us understand an emerging, dynamic labor market.

Chapter Headings

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Purposes for Occupational Information
  3. Context; Labor Market Trends
  4. Classification Issues
  5. Priorities of Potential Users
  6. Job-Worker Matching: Case Study of Machine Trades
  7. Principles and Goals
  8. Recommendations for the Future SOC
  9. Implementation
  10. Appendix
Area of Work: Economy, People