Why do we need to agree on occupations?

When meeting at a party, the first thing most people will often talk about is their job: “I’m an economist”, “I’m a shop assistant”, or “I’m a car mechanic”. In doing so, they give a hint of their relative socio-economic standing, as well as their level of skills. Economists are typically professionals who have completed tertiary level education. Car mechanics tend to be skilled manual workers whose highest level is upper secondary vocational education and training. 

To compare jobs, better understand their content, and the type and level of skills they require, it is however useful to standardise what we mean by different jobs and classify them into occupations. Classification systems for jobs make it easier to compare across countries and track trends over time.

Comparative information may be sought, for instance, on the types of occupations in a particular industrial sector or local area. Such information is valuable for assessing skill demand, since occupations tend to be classified according to the level of skill required to carry out the tasks in the jobs typically comprised in an occupation.

The international standard for occupational classification

Classifications of occupations arrange jobs into defined groups according to the tasks undertaken in those jobs. In other words, they form a dictionary of occupations, which serve two key functions:

  • offering guidelines on how to classify jobs into detailed occupations based on the tasks, duties and other aspects of the jobs, including goods and services produced, skill level and specialisation, entry restrictions, etc.[1]
  • explaining how these detailed occupations are to be aggregated into broader occupational groups.

The International Standard Classification of Occupations 2008 (ISCO 08) developed by the International Labour Office[2] is an internationally accepted standard. Although many countries have their own national occupational classifications, ISCO-08 allows for international comparisons across countries, sectors and enterprises.

ISCO makes a clear distinction between a job and an occupation[3]:

  • a job is a set of tasks and duties performed or meant to be performed, by one person, including for an employer or in self-employment; and
  • an occupation is a set of jobs whose main tasks and duties are characterized by a high degree of similarity.

The lowest ISCO level offers a lot of detail to distinguish between occupations such as electrical engineering technicians (ISCO-08 code: 3113) and electronics engineering technicians (ISCO-08 code: 3114). These jobs are eventually clustered into occupational groups, such as technicians and Associate professionals (e.g. ISCO-08 code: 3).

Another example is the major group level of “Service and sales workers” (Major Group 5), described in the ISCO codebook as: “Service and sales workers provide personal and protective services related to travel, housekeeping, catering, personal care, protection against fire and unlawful acts; or demonstrate and sell goods in wholesale or retail shops or similar establishments, as well as at stalls on markets.” 

This group includes a lot of different activities but if we need more detailed information, it is possible to disaggregate it into a range of specific services and sales occupations, such as personal service workers (sub-major group 51), service workers (sub-major group 52), or personal care workers (sub-major group 53), etc., or even go to lower levels of the classification if more details are required.

The role of skills

Occupational skills are the ‘missing link’ between jobs (demand side) and workers (supply side) of the labour market.

Skills are an important feature used by ISCO to allocate a job to a specific occupation.  In ISCO-08, emphasis is placed upon:

  1. skill level (measured with reference to UNESCO’s International Standard Classification of Education – ISCED); and
  2. skill specialisation (with reference to fields of knowledge, tools used, materials worked with, good and services produced). 

Given the emphasis placed on skills when classifying and grouping jobs into occupations, it is legitimate to use occupations as a measure of skill whenever data on skills are not available. For instance, we use occupations to help us link economic forecasts (e.g. projected employment per occupations) to the skills that will be needed in future labour market.

Accordingly, occupation – as defined by the ISCO - is one of the key dimensions along which data are presented in the Skills Panorama. The Table below lists the occupational groups that are used in the Panorama. To provide reliable and robust statistics on future trends using available international data, information on occupations is limited to ISCO 2-digit level.

Table: Skills Panorama Occupational Classification


Major ISCO Groups (1-digit)


Sub-major ISCO Groups (2-digit)


Managers Chief executives, senior officials and legislators
  Administrative and commercial managers
  Managers in services
Professionals Science and engineering professionals
  Health professionals
  Teaching professionals
  Business and other professionals
Technicians and associate professionals Science and engineering associate professionals
  Health associate professionals
  Business and administration associate professionals
  Legal, social, cultural and related associate professionals
Clerical support workers Customer services clerks
  General office clerks
Service and sales workers Sales workers
  Personal, care, protective service
Skilled agricultural, forestry and fishery workers Agricultural workers
Craft and related trades workers Building and related trades workers, excluding electricians
  Metal, machinery and electrical trades
  Handicraft and printing workers
  Food processing
Plant and machine operators, and assemblers Stationary plant and machine operators
  Drivers and mobile plant operators
Elementary Occupations Cleaners, refuse, street and related sevice occupations
  Agricultural, forestry and fishery labourers
  Labourers in mining, construction, manufacturing and transport
Armed forces Armed forces

[3] (p.11 International Standard Classification of Occupations: Structure group definitions and correspondence tables, ILO, 2012).