What Is a Vocational Expert and What Do They Do?

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Vocational expert

Vocational experts are individuals whose education, training, and experience qualifies them to perform work and express opinions related to vocational rehabilitation, vocational counseling, employability, earning capacity projections, labor market analysis, job availability, lost earnings, and the value of lost household services. Vocational experts may also work as life planning experts for individuals who are disabled by catastrophic injuries.

Vocational experts often provide litigation support to attorneys and administrative agencies by preparing expert reports and testifying as expert witnesses in a variety of cases. Other vocational experts provide vocational rehabilitative services to injury victims or work in fields related to job placement and career counseling.

Vocational Rehabilitation

Vocational rehabilitation professionals typically focus their efforts on providing rehabilitative services to injured, ill, or disabled individuals, as opposed to providing expert opinions to lawyers and judges. They typically work as part of a team to improve the employability of individuals who suffer from long-term health conditions or disabilities that do not prevent them from performing gainful employment.

Vocational rehabilitation professionals identify the kinds of work that the client is capable of performing, as well as the kinds of work the client would be able to perform with additional training, coaching, or occupational rehabilitation. Other team members might include physical therapists, speech therapists, mental health counselors, psychologists, neurologists, and specialists in job training.

Job Placement and Career Counseling

Some individuals with vocational expertise work in the field of job placement or recruitment. They identify the specific skills that are needed for an available position and sift through potential employees to find suitable individuals who possess those skills. They might also identify the specific skills possessed by an individual and offer advice about the steps that individual can take to find a satisfying career that makes use of those skills.

Litigation Support – Lost Income Claims

Vocational experts testify as expert witnesses in various kinds of litigation that allege lost earnings. They are used to establish or defend against claims of damages in cases that allege lost income. They also provide evidence to support or defend against allegations that a plaintiff failed to mitigate damages.

Vocational experts commonly testify in personal injury cases. Their testimony is vital to establish future damages when an injury victim is unable to resume former full-time employment. Vocational experts are typically used in conjunction with medical experts (who establish physical and functional limitations that were caused by the defendant’s negligence) and economists (who compute the present value of lost future earnings).

Vocational experts interview the injury victim and other individuals with relevant knowledge of the victim’s educational background, job history, and accomplishments to assess the victim’s employment skills. The expert may administer vocational testing to refine the assessment of those skills.

The vocational expert will review medical records, with particular attention to functional capacity evaluations. That information will help the expert determine whether the victim can return to former employment, with or without job modifications. If the victim can no longer work in a former career, the expert will analyze the kinds of work that the victim is capable of performing in light of the victim’s skills, background, and physical or mental limitations.

The vocational expert will survey the labor market to determine whether jobs are available in the victim’s geographic area that the victim can perform. The expert will determine the range of wages that those jobs pay. By comparing those wages to the victim’s former earnings, the expert can calculate the value of the victim’s lost earning capacity. An economist can then calculate the present value of that loss over the course of the victim’s lifetime.

Litigation Support – Life Care Planning

Some vocational experts are also experts in life care planning. A life care planner offers evidence of the future cost of caring for an individual who is disabled, usually because of a catastrophic accident or a serious illness caused by a toxic exposure.

Life care planners assess the disabled individual’s future need for health care, including goods or services (such as wheelchairs and physical therapy) that will be needed over the course of a lifetime. They also assess the need for vocational rehabilitation and calculate the expense of coping with a disability, such as the cost of transportation, home health aides, and assistants who can handle cooking, cleaning, laundry, lawn care, and all the other activities the injury victim can no longer perform. A life care lanner calculates the cost of meeting each of those needs over the course of the victim’s remaining life expectancy.

Litigation Support – Family Law

Alimony (also known as maintenance or family support) is generally based on one spouse’s need for financial support and the other spouse’s ability to meet those needs. If either spouse is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, most states allow the court to impute to that spouse the income that he or she could be earning. 

A vocational expert can assess the spouse’s earning capacity to help a lawyer present evidence that will allow the court to impute income to the underemployed spouse. That evidence may prevent the paying spouse from shirking his or her support obligation. It may also prevent the recipient spouse from obtaining an unfair alimony award when the spouse is capable of earning more than his or her current income.

Litigation Support – Disability Claims

In Social Security Disability cases, administrative law judges rely on the testimony of vocational experts to determine whether the applicant for benefits is capable of substantial gainful employment. While the Social Security Administration may use its own expert to advise the judge, applicants may find it useful to retain the services of their own vocational expert.

In some states, administrative law judges will also consider the testimony of vocational experts in workers’ compensation cases. Florida, for example, allows administrative judges to base awards of total permanent disability benefits on a combination of medical and vocational expert evidence demonstrating that the claimant is incapable of engaging in at least sedentary employment.

Litigation Support – Disability Discrimination Claims

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to accommodate reasonable requests for job modifications that will enable a disabled employee to meet the essential functions of a job if providing the modifications will not cause an undue hardship. Vocational experts are trained to assess essential job requirements and the nature of a disability and to provide an expert analysis of the modifications that might reasonably be made to permit the employee to perform the job.