Where Do You Fit?

Updating the U.S. Standard Occupational
Classification System

by Christopher L. Grachanen

Many readers may not be familiar with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) System. According to its website, the SOC is a:

… system used by federal statistical agencies to classify workers into occupational categories for the purpose of collecting, calculating or disseminating data. All workers are classified into one of 840 detailed occupations according to their occupational definition. To facilitate classification, detailed occupations are combined to form 461 broad occupations, 97 minor groups, and 23 major groups. Detailed occupations in the SOC with similar job duties, and in some cases skills, education, and training, are grouped together.1

Discovering disparity

The SOC is updated about every 10 years (the last update was in 2010), with the next update slated for 2018. I first became aware of the SOC in 2002 when I was looking for demographic information regarding the population of calibration and metrology practitioners in the United States to estimate the number of potential candidates who may elect to become certified if an ASQ calibration and metrology certification program existed. The numbers were needed to justify a proposal for creating the program. The proposal was eventually accepted by ASQ’s Board of Directors and culminated in the creation of the certified calibration technician program in 2003.

After examining the SOC, I learned it does not recognize job titles and descriptions for calibration technicians, calibration engineers or metrologists, which means information about these occupations is not being collected via U.S. censuses. This disparity prompted a partnering of ASQ’s Measurement Quality Division, the National Conference of Standards Laboratories International and the Measurement Science Conference to create a submission for calibration and metrology job titles and descriptions to be added to the 2010 SOC.

Unfortunately, SOC administrators ultimately rejected this submittal on the basis of insufficient substantiation of:

  1. Unique tasks performed
  2. Sufficient population numbers warranting recognition in the SOC.

Because the SOC does not contain job titles and descriptions for calibration and metrology practitioners, there are essentially no standardized definitions for these occupations. Standardized occupational definitions are used to homogenize titles and descriptions across civil and governmental contracts, pay grades scales and position qualifications.

It is also important to note that to assist young adults in making well-informed career decisions, educators frequently reference the U.S. Department of Labor publications to provide information about occupations and forecasts on future job growth. The SOC listing is frequently used to determine which occupations are included in the majority of those publications. One of the major publications used by educators for this purpose is the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). The following is from the OOH Teachers Guide webpage:

The Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) is an online career guidance resource that provides information on hundreds of occupations in the United States. Updated every two years by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the OOH allows students to explore different aspects of occupations by clicking on the following tabs:

  • What workers do on the job.Work environment.
  • Education, training and other qualifications needed to enter the occupation.
  • Pay.
  • Projected employment change and job prospects from 2012 to 2022.
  • Similar occupations.
  • Contacts for more information.

As a teacher, you are in a position to help your students plan their future. Through the OOH, students can access valuable occupational information that can help them make career choices. By familiarizing yourself with the features of the OOH, you will be in a position to quickly and effectively help your students use this valuable tool.2

Many, such as those in the calibration and metrology fields, are faced with large numbers of baby boomers retiring from the workforce along with a critical shortage of young adults entering the field. It is this dire situation that prompted a new submittal of calibration and metrology titles and job descriptions for inclusion in the 2018 SOC, taking into consideration lessons learned from the 2010 submittal. It is anticipated that later this year, the U.S. federal register will publish the SOC’s decision on adding calibration and metrology occupations for the 2018 SOC.

Bigger quality picture

Some readers may be asking what the SOC position on inclusion of calibration and metrology job descriptions has to do with mainstream quality occupations. To answer that question, all you need to do is search the SOC website for "quality engineer," shown in Figure 1. The search yields a single result, shown in Figure 2. A query of the SOC website for "quality technician" yields two results, shown in Figure 3.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Furthermore, the alphabetical list of SOC occupations does not list job titles or descriptions for "quality engineer," "engineer, quality," "quality technician," and "technician, quality." You can deduce the implications of this situation on the quality profession, and arguably, this warrants a call for action by ASQ leaders to rectify this disparity.


  1. "Standards Occupational Classification System," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, www.bls.gov/soc/home.htm.
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, "Teachers Guide," Occupational Outlook Handbook, www.bls.gov/ooh/about/teachers-guide.htm.

Christopher L. Grachanen is a distinguished technologist and operations manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. in Houston. He earned an MBA from Regis University in Denver. Grachanen is a co-author of The Metrology Handbook (ASQ Quality Press, 2012), an ASQ fellow, an ASQ-certified calibration technician and the treasurer of the Measurement Quality Division.

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