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What is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

A Certified Nursing Assistant is a professional, state-licensed and registered individual who works in medical and other healthcare environments to deliver care to patients. CNAs are often called nursing aides or orderlies, as they work alongside Registered Nurses and Medical Doctors. A CNA's duties include moving patients from room to room, assisting with cleaning, and other manual tasks such as lifting patients, or facilitating the administration of an IV or injection. CNAs also work directly with patients in performing a variety of recreational or daily living activities. CNAs are a vital part of any hospital, clinic, or skilled nursing facility.

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Steps to Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant

Certified Nursing Assistants are licensed paraprofessionals who must undergo an educational and examination process before attaining their credentials. Essentially the process involves academic training, a comprehensive written examination, a practical skills test, and an experiential, supervised period that can culminate in entry to the state registry and licensure.

  • Step 1: Academic and Practical Training

  • Step 2: Written Examination

  • Step 3: Practical Skills Test

  • Step 4: Supervised Period


Step 1: Academic and Practical Training

Like most any licensed professional or paraprofessional position, you must complete coursework as a vital first step along your path. Thus, you should seek out a state approved CNA program that can provide the certificate you need to progress. You can often find qualified programs online or through local technical schools. The courses can take as long as eight weeks but are often shorter if you are able to study full-time.

Your coursework will teach skills and cover topics such as:

  • CPR
  • Controlling Infection
  • Taking Vital Signs
  • Medical Teamwork and Diversity
  • Workplace Communication
  • Art of Care Giving
  • Safety Promotion

Your coursework is likely to start in the classroom but then will move into the clinical portion. In fact, you will move directly into a live care facility where you will be supervised by a licensed or Registered Nurse. This way, once you complete the academic portion of the process you will already have some experience.

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Step 2: Written Examination

If your program is state approved, they should be able to adequately prepare you for the state exam. Be sure to take advantage of any study materials they may have or make use of any you might find online. It is also a great idea to team up with your fellow students for study sessions. This step validates the hard work you did in the classroom and in your rotation period. Further, it can help you build your credentials later, as you might wish to become a Certified Medication Assistant (CMA) or even go to nursing school to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or a Registered Nurse (RN).

Step 3: Practical Skills Test

For your practical skills test, you must demonstrate your ability to perform certain tasks such as:

  • Safely turning a patient in bed
  • Changing an IV drip
  • Checking vital signs
  • Assisting patients with a wheelchair
  • Assisting patients with a walker
  • Changing bed linens

Your program should provide specific instructions and training for how to perform each task. You might train a friend or family member and then practice on them. When they know what to look for, they can give you feedback on how well you did.

Step 4: Supervised Period

Once you have successfully completed your coursework and examinations, you can get to work. However, the process is not quite complete. You will need to work under a state licensed professional who can monitor your progress and verify for the state that you are qualified for the profession. This period can be as short as 40 hours, but may be longer, depending on your state's regulations.

Once your supervised hours have been documented and provided to your state's licensing board, you will then need to ensure that you have registered a background check that shows no disqualifying criminal convictions nor any record of workplace abuse or patient neglect. Once these standards are met to the state's satisfaction, you can become registered, licensed, and credentialed as certified nursing assistant.

What Does a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) Do?

A Certified Nursing Assistant is called to perform a number of tasks during a workday. In fact, your duties can vary widely depending on the sort of facility you work in. For instance, a long-term nursing facility will involve different skills and duties than a maternity ward. You could also work in environments such as a drug and alcohol detoxification clinic, home healthcare, correctional facility, or urgent care practices.

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In a nursing home, for instance, your day could involve some of the following tasks:

  • Wheelchair assistance
  • Range of motion exercises
  • Changing bedpans or adult undergarments
  • Changing bed linens
  • Vital sign monitoring

If, on the other hand, you were to work in a detoxification clinic, your job might require the following duties and abilities:

  • Assisting with patient restraints
  • Take and record vital signs
  • Friendly and helpful patient interactions
  • Protect patient confidentiality
  • Observe patient condition and report changes
  • Light housekeeping

When you review the above lists of duties, be aware that your workplace may ask you to perform all of them in a single day, or it may have different duties to add to the list. Ultimately, your job is to help maintain optimal safety and care for every patient. You may become rather attached to patients, especially those in long-term nursing facilities or hospice care. You will also need to be prepared to say goodbye to those special patients.

Certified Nursing Assistant Skills to Acquire

As a certified nursing assistant, you will need to acquire and hone a rather large set of skills. To make sure that you remain sharp and are current with the profession's best practices, your state may even require that you stay current with continuing education courses.

In any case, the typical skills you should acquire as a certified nursing assistant include, but are not limited to:

  • Compassionate communication
  • Patience
  • Vital sign monitoring
  • Vital sign recording
  • Keen observation of patient status and progress
  • Changing bed linen
  • Wheelchair operation and adjustment
  • Safe patient movement
  • Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
  • Professional ethics including confidentiality
  • Full knowledge of the issues facing your particular population – such as elder issues, infant needs, etc.
  • Maintaining pertinent medical records
  • Maintaining a sterile and healthy environment for patients
  • Nutritional meal preparation and service
  • Appropriate patient interaction and communication
  • Working knowledge of emergency protocols

Alternative Paths

While a certified nursing assistant may start their route into the profession by enrolling in a state approved certificate course, you don't necessarily have to pursue this path. Depending on your state's specific regulations, you could first attain a position in a healthcare facility and then proceed to become certified. This is often done by showing your potential employer that you have applied to a CNA program, or that you will soon.

Another way to join the field is to start work as an orderly or other non-certified healthcare worker. Orderlies typically are the workers more commonly asked to perform physical tasks such as lifting patients, cleaning up spills, or engaging in more dire situations such as restraining a patient or helping someone after a fall.

If you are an orderly who wishes to become a certified nursing assistant, you should discuss your plans with your supervisors to see what, if any, positions might be available. If there is an opening, you might be able to transition into that job once you begin your certification courses. In fact, if you have significant experience with your employer, they might have a tuition reimbursement program to help develop you as a worker and healthcare professional.

Certified Nursing Assistant Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Certified Nursing Assistants are found in nearly every sort of healthcare facility. The only possible exception might be a doctor's private practice, but that's simply because those are too small to take on extra staff. Nevertheless, you can work in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, in-home care, and mental health facilities of all sorts.

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Your employers might include the Veterans Administration, private healthcare companies, non-profits, and even individuals who need extra help but who cannot, or will not, work with a nursing service. There are even jobs working in group homes with clients who may be physically or mentally disabled.

Given this sort of diversity, your career as a certified nursing assistant can encompass variety that many professionals only dream of. On the other hand, you could decide to specialize in work with a particular sort of client, such as the elderly or infants.

Given that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows this field growing by 11% through 2026, which is "much faster than average", you are assured steady work for quite some time. In fact, the wider field of healthcare occupations is growing at a similar pace, so you can consider attaining additional certificates or degrees down the road. Currently, the BLS shows the media salary for Nursing Assistants and Orderlies to be $27,500 with the highest median pay going to certified nursing assistants that work for government agencies, who make a median salary of $29,000. Consider that salaries are always dependent on your specific location and employer.

Potential Career Paths

Once you start working in the healthcare field as a certified nursing assistant, you might consider how to expand your skills, responsibilities, and salary. For this reason, you might be interested in starting your path in a hospital environment, where you will be surrounded by a wide range of professionals. You'll work along with Licensed Practical Nurses, Registered Nurses, Medical Assistants, Medical Technicians of all sorts, as well as hospital administrators. If you consider the Registered Nurses alone, they have a range of specialty that includes:

  • Psychiatry
  • Cardiology
  • Neurology
  • Anesthesiology
  • Maternity

It seems that the most logical path upwards would be to work towards becoming either a Licensed Practical Nurse, which involves a one-year certification program, or a Registered Nurse, for which you will need a bachelor's degree. On the other hand, you might decide to serve patients in a different way, from behind the desk of an administrator. No matter which route appeals to you, you will serve patient outcomes and experience a rich and fulfilling career.

Certified Nursing Assistant Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
(CNA) Certified Nurses Assistant $20,000 $29,000 $45,000
(LPN) Licensed Practical Nurse $31,000 $45,000 $61,000
(LVN) Licensed Vocational Nurse $35,000 $50,000 $67,000
(RN) Registered Nurse $45,000 $66,000 $92,000

Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the future is looking great for Certified Nursing Assistants. The show that the occupational sector will grow by 11% through 2026, adding well over 100,000 jobs. Given the increasing demand for workers, you will surely see a rise in salary as time goes on. Currently, the national median salary is $27,500. Keep in mind that the BLS includes all nursing assistants and orderlies in this figure. Thus, certified professionals are likely to receive a paycheck that exceeds the median.

In fact, the BLS states that nearly the entire healthcare sector has great promise. With this rosy employment outlook, you are bound to see not only a series of healthy raises in the future, but also new and exciting job opportunities.

If you later decide to attain an associates or bachelor's degree in a clinical or administrative field, you can experience an incredible boost in status, pay, and long-term prospects. Healthcare presents so many opportunities that it’s hard to consider many other sectors of the economy. After all, the population is growing by leaps and bounds and, for better or worse, everyone at some point needs to receive medical care.

Advancing From Here

Once you have you first certification as a certified nursing assistant, there is nowhere to go but upwards. This is an exciting spot to be in because you’ll have boundless opportunities. One way to start exploring these opportunities is by joining a professional association. Alternately, you might start up a gathering of healthcare workers. If you work in a large hospital, you could start up an informal bowling, ping-pong, or other sporting league. This way you can get to know others in different parts of the organization. Your networking will help you discern which jobs are the most appealing, and you can expand your network in those directions.

No matter which direction you choose to take your healthcare career, if you keep your focus clearly on maximizing patient outcomes you will find that the rest takes care of itself. Your track record will speak for itself and you will naturally find avenues for upward mobility. The future is looking bright, so go out and grab it.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the job duties of Certified Nursing Assistants?

Nursing assistants are responsible for direct patient care. This includes taking vital signs, feeding patients, and documenting their food and liquid intake. Nursing assistants help with grooming patients by brushing their hair, brushing their teeth, shaving them, bathing them, etc.

What is the job outlook for nursing assistants?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2020 to 2030 the predicted growth rate for nursing assistants is around 8%.

What qualities should nursing assistants possess?

Nursing assistants need to have compassion and empathy, emotional stability, and patience. They must also have strong communication skills and observance.

How long does it take to become a certified nursing assistant?

Most programs are 120 hours or longer and take around eight weeks to complete.

Where can you work as a nursing assistant?

Nursing assistants work in nursing homes, hospitals, hospice, home care, assisted living, and other long-term care facilities.

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