The U. S. government classifies workers using the Standard Occupational
Classification (SOC) system, an elaborate organization of 840 detailed
occupations developed and maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This system is used by many federal agencies to characterize the American
workforce and to allocate resources to states and local communities.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010
illustrates some of the ways in which the SOC is used to
govern the federal allocation of resources. For example,
direct care workers are defined in the Affordable Care Act
by reference to a specific set of SOC classifications. This
legislation also authorized the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) to provide grants for community
health promotion programs delivered by members of a
specified occupational group (community health workers).
Psychologists are direct providers of health care, yet the
Affordable Care Act excludes them from its definition of
direct care worker by connecting that occupational category
to one that excludes psychologists. Psychologists are often
the leaders when it comes to developing and implementing
health promotion programs, yet the act excludes them from
eligibility for the CDC grants by connecting those to an
occupational category that excludes psychologists.
Scrutiny of the SOC system indicates many ways that
psychologists are fundamentally misclassified by the Bureau
of Labor Statistics. One broad category of the SOC captures
Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations. This
is where we find chiropractors, dentists, optometrists,
pharmacists, physicians (including psychiatrists), nurses
and even veterinarians. None of the 34 detailed occupations
within this set represent anything close to psychologist, even
though this is where psychiatrists are judged as belonging.
Another clustering of occupations locates psychologists
within a large group of Social Scientists and Related Workers.
In this part of the SOC, psychologists are placed into one of
three detailed occupations:
• Clinical, counseling and school psychologists.
• Industrial/organizational psychologists.
• Psychologists, all others.
No student of contemporary psychology would parse the
discipline in this way.
But this is not where most of us who teach and do
research at colleges and universities would be classified by
the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We would be assigned to the
detailed occupation of Psychology Teachers, Postsecondary.
At last count (2012), this captured 48,000 of us. We are
located within a larger cluster of postsecondary social
sciences teachers. This placement is important because it
separates psychology from the groupings that are more likely
to be identified as STEM disciplines (such as life sciences,
engineering, physical sciences and mathematics). It reinforces
federal institutional failures to recognize psychology as a
STEM discipline itself.
As psychologists, we should be concerned about how
the federal government misclassifies us. As a discipline
and as a profession, psychology is not served well by the
misclassifications. But society is the real loser. Citizens are
deprived of essential health-related services that psychologists
can provide. Students are misled in their understanding of
contemporary science and of career paths that are available
to psychological scientists. Federal agencies operate under a
faulty understanding of the size and quality of the workforce
required to serve in areas of national need.
It is really a matter of national interest for the Bureau of
Labor Statistics to improve how it classifies the occupations
of psychologists. The good news is that a revision of the
Standard Occupational Classification system will begin this
year, with the goal of delivering a revised SOC by 2018. APA
will help by suggesting better ways to classify psychologists.
We can all help by becoming better educated about this facet
of the large and complex federal statistical system. n
BY DR. STEVEN J. BRECKLER • APA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR SCIENCE