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Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Career Guide

What is a certified nursing assistant?

Certified nursing assistants are the frontliners who make sure patients get the basic care they need. They work under nurses, helping with everyday tasks and making sure patients are comfortable and looked after.

Duties and responsibilities

  • Everyday care: CNAs help patients with daily stuff like bathing, dressing, and eating.
  • Health monitors: They keep an eye on vital signs like blood pressure and temperature.
  • Team players: They document patient info, let nurses know if a patient’s condition changes, and help with medical procedures.

Work environment

CNAs work in hospitals, nursing homes, residential care, and private homes. Their work is hands-on and active—they’re always on their feet and might need to help move patients. In places like nursing homes, they’re not just caretakers but also friends and emotional supporters for the patients.

Typical work hours

CNA work hours depend on where they serve:

  • Shift work: In hospitals and nursing homes, they might work different shifts since these places run all day and night.
  • Regular hours: In home healthcare or private residences, the hours are more like the usual daytime schedule. However, they might need to be flexible depending on the patients’ needs.

How to become a certified nursing assistant

The road to becoming a CNA is a path filled with learning, caring, and helping others, and it can open doors to even more opportunities in the healthcare world. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Enroll in a CNA training program

First things first, sign up for a state-approved CNA training program. These programs usually last between 4 to 12 weeks and teach you the basics, like nursing skills, patient care, infection control, and medical lingo. Use resources like the Certified Nursing Aide Exam Practice Test on Udemy to prep for exams. 

Step 2: Ace the CNA competency examination

After your training, you’ll need to pass a CNA competency exam. This usually has two parts: a written or computer-based test on nursing concepts and a hands-on skills test (think taking vital signs, helping patients move, etc.).

Step 3: Get your state certification

Passed your exam? Great! Now, apply for your state certification. You’ll need to show that you completed your training and passed your exam and a background check. Requirements vary by state, so check with your local Board of Nursing.

Step 4: Land a job

With certification in hand, you’re ready to look for jobs. CNAs work in all sorts of places, like hospitals, nursing homes, and home healthcare. Think about what setting suits you best as you apply and interview for positions.

Step 5: Keep learning and growing

To keep your CNA certification, you’ll need to do some continuing education. This keeps you updated with healthcare changes and can lead to more career opportunities. Here are some courses that might help:

How much do certified nursing assistants make?

A CNA’s salary can depend on their education, experience, where they work, where they live, and who they work for. It’s a mix of factors, and understanding them can help you navigate your career choices in healthcare.

Highest paying industries

  • Government: $46,250
  • Hospitals: $43,650
  • Nursing Care Facilities: $41,950
  • Assisted Living Facilities: $41,620
  • Home Health Care: $41,460

Highest paying states

  • Alaska: $46,830
  • New York: $48,010
  • California: $46,630
  • Massachusetts: $45,980
  • Washington: $45,420

Browse CNA salary data by market

Types of certified nursing assistants

Each type of CNA has a special role, catering to different groups of patients and working in diverse healthcare environments. This career path offers a range of opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives.

  • Geriatric CNA: These CNAs specialize in caring for older adults with chronic illnesses and memory issues like dementia. They work in nursing homes or provide home healthcare.
  • Pediatric CNA: Pediatric CNAs are all about kids – from babies to teenagers. They understand the different needs of each age group and work in children’s hospitals, clinics, or schools.
  • Hospital CNA: These CNAs help out in specialized areas like orthopedics or cardiology. They provide basic patient care and assist in different procedures.
  • Home Health CNA: Home health CNAs help patients at home, maybe because they’re sick, disabled, or recovering from surgery. They assist with personal care, housekeeping, meals, and medication reminders.
  • Rehabilitation CNA: These CNAs work in rehab centers or units, helping patients recover from surgeries, injuries, or illnesses. They support therapeutic exercises and help with everyday tasks.
  • Hospice CNA: In hospices or home settings, these CNAs comfort and support patients in their final days, helping with personal care and symptom management and offering support to families.
  • Psychiatric CNA: Working under mental health professionals, these CNAs care for patients in psychiatric hospitals or units. They help manage behaviors and participate in therapeutic activities.

Top skills for certified nursing assistants

To be a standout CNA, you need a mix of practical skills, sharp observation, physical strength, great communication, a big heart, and a good head for safety. It’s about caring for others with both skill and compassion.

  • Mastering basic patient care: CNAs are pros at helping with everyday tasks and are skilled in medical procedures, taking vital signs, and maintaining patient hygiene. Knowing these tasks inside out is critical to making patients comfortable and well.
  • Sharp observational skills: CNAs often catch the first signs of change in a patient’s health, whether obvious or subtle. Being sharp-eyed means they can act fast to help patients get the care they need.
  • Physical stamina and health: They must be fit to lift and move patients, stand for a long time, and handle various physical tasks. This stamina helps them give the best care.
  • Effective communication and rapport: These nursing assistants are always interacting with patients, their families, and other healthcare staff. Communicating well, listening, and building connections is essential for top-notch, patient-focused care.
  • Compassion and patience: When patients are struggling or in pain, their compassion makes a world of difference. Being empathetic, kind, and patient helps patients feel cared for and supported.
  • Knowledge of health and safety protocols: CNAs know all about health and safety and are trained to use equipment safely, keep things clean, and stop infections from spreading. This expertise is vital to protecting everyone’s health.

Certified nursing assistant career path

Building experience as a CNA

As a CNA, you can start taking on more responsibilities or focus on areas you’re passionate about, like caring for the elderly or children. Some nursing assistants move into roles with more admin tasks, like being a medical secretary or patient care coordinator.

From CNA to LPN

Many use their experience as a launchpad to become licensed practical nurses (LPNs), which requires more schooling and passing a licensure exam. As an LPN, you provide more advanced care and usually earn a higher salary.

Becoming an RN

To become a registered nurse (RN), you’d typically need a bachelor’s degree in nursing. RNs can specialize in fields like emergency or oncology nursing and step into leadership roles like charge nurse or nurse manager.

Advanced practice and administration

With lots of experience and possibly a master’s degree, RNs can become advanced practice RNs (APRNs), taking on roles like nurse practitioners. Some go the administrative route, becoming nurse administrators or directors of nursing.

The future for CNAs looks busy and bright. Here are some trends to keep an eye on:

  • Aging population: As the population gets older, there’s a bigger need for healthcare services, and that’s where CNAs come in. They’re in high demand, especially to help care for elderly people who often need long-term assistance.
  • Technology in healthcare: Technology is becoming a big part of healthcare. These nursing assistants need to get comfortable with electronic health records (EHRs) and other tech tools that are becoming standard in their field.
  • Mental health skills: There’s a growing recognition of the importance of mental health in patient care. They are increasingly expected to have skills in this area to meet the diverse needs of their patients.

Employment projections

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 5% growth in employment for nursing assistants through 2031. This steady growth shows that CNAs will continue to be in demand. As the population gets older, there’s a bigger need for healthcare services, which translates to more jobs.

Certified nursing assistant career tips

Hone interpersonal skills

Being good at talking to and understanding patients makes a huge difference. Show empathy, listen well, and communicate in a way that makes patients feel cared for and respected.

Prioritize hygiene

Cleanliness is a big deal in healthcare. Wash your hands often, use protective gear right, and follow all the rules to stop infections from spreading.

Stay fit

You’ll be doing a lot of lifting and moving around. Staying physically fit will help you do your job well and keep you from getting hurt.

Build your network

Join groups like the National Association of Health Care Assistants (NAHCA) or LinkedIn groups for CNAs. Networking can open doors for learning and growing in your career.

Never stop learning

Healthcare is always changing, so keep learning. Take extra courses, renew your certifications, and maybe get training in areas you’re interested in, like caring for the elderly or kids.

Master time management

Being smart with your time is crucial. Find ways to stay on top of your tasks, stay organized, and manage your time to reduce stress and give better care.

Develop emotional resilience

Working as a CNA can be emotionally hard. Practice mindfulness or find hobbies that help you relax and stay strong emotionally.

Professionalism is a must

Keep things respectful and ethical. Respect patients’ privacy, maintain good boundaries, and stick to the ethical standards of your job.

Be a team player

Good teamwork makes everything better in healthcare. Work well with nurses, doctors, and other staff to improve patient care.

Advocate for your patients

Part of your job is to make sure patients are heard and understood. Help them understand their care plans and work to make their care as good and comfortable as possible.

Where the CNA jobs are

Top companies

  • HCA Healthcare
  • Genesis HealthCare
  • Kindred Healthcare
  • DaVita Inc.
  • Fresenius Medical

Top states

  • California
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Glassdoor
  • LinkedIn
  • Nurse.com
  • SimplyHired


What educational background is typically expected for a CNA?

A high school diploma or equivalent, followed by a state-approved training program is usually required. After training, they must pass a state competency exam to earn their certification.

What are the key responsibilities of a CNA?

Responsibilities typically involve providing basic care to patients, including bathing and dressing patients, assisting with mobility, taking vital signs, and reporting health concerns. They also support patients’ emotional well-being and communicate issues to healthcare teams.

What skills are essential for a CNA?

They need strong interpersonal skills, physical stamina, general medical knowledge, and attention to detail.

In what types of settings do CNAs typically work?

They can be found in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and private homes. They may also work in rehabilitation centers or hospices.

What role does a CNA play in a healthcare team?

They are a liaison between patients and other healthcare professionals within a healthcare team. They offer hands-on care and closely monitor patients. Their observations and insights can be crucial for the healthcare team’s decision-making process.

Is continuing education required for a CNA?

Continuing education is typically required to maintain certification. The requirements vary by state but usually include certain training hours over a specified period.

What are the most challenging aspects of being a CNA?

The emotional aspects of working with individuals who are ill, injured, or at the end of life can be stressful. They often work long hours and must perform tasks like lifting or turning patients.

What is the role of a CNA in patient safety?

They must ensure that patients’ personal needs are met safely and respectfully. They also play a vital role in monitoring patients for any changes in their health status and promptly reporting changes to nursing staff.

What is the relationship between a CNA and an RN?

CNAs work closely with RNs as part of a collaborative healthcare team. They provide basic patient care, monitor patients’ conditions, and then report observations to the RN. The RN supervises their work and makes higher-level patient care decisions based on the reports.

What is the typical day-to-day experience of a CNA?

A typical day might involve helping patients with morning routines like bathing and dressing, serving meals or assisting with feeding, changing bed linens, taking vital signs, and documenting patients’ health statuses. They may also help with rehabilitative exercises or accompany patients to tests or procedures.