Science Directions

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.