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Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Career Overview

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What is a CNA?

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) works under a nurse’s supervision to care for patients, usually in a residential care setting, such as a nursing home, or hospitals. CNAs, sometimes referred to as a nurse’s aide, typically help patients care for their hygiene and ensure they can move about safely. They also support nurses by taking vital signs, answering patient calls, and organizing supplies.

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What Does a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Do?

HS Diploma or GED required
certification required

CNAs are essential care providers for hospital, nursing home, and residential care patients, assisting patients with basic activities, such as moving, eating, dressing, and staying sanitary. They also support nurses and other care providers by taking vital signs, including temperature and blood pressure. While CNAs do not provide medical care, they must have enough healthcare knowledge to recognize when to call for a nurse or other clinician to assess a situation where the patient’s health might be at risk.

CNA key responsibilities include but are not limited to:

Primary Responsibilities

  • Helping patients stay clean and comfortable
  • Ensuring patient rooms are sanitary
  • Assisting patients with eating and drinking
  • Helping patients physically to move, such as by getting them in and out of bed or helping them change positions
  • Answering call buttons and other patient requests
  • Taking vitals and recognizing possible warning signs, like changes in blood pressure or indications of an infected wound

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Where Do CNAs Work?

CNAs can work in any healthcare environment. Almost 40% work in nursing care facilities, 27% work in hospitals, and 11% work in continuing care retirement communities. A small proportion, 5%, work in home healthcare services assisting patients in their own homes, and 4% work in government settings, such as Veterans Administration hospitals.

As of May 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the average salary for CNAs at $32,050. However, salaries vary based on geographic location and type of healthcare setting. Government healthcare facilities, for instance, pay one of the higher CNA salaries at $37,240, while home healthcare services pay the least at $29,210.

Top paying industries for CNAs include junior colleges at $49,250, universities at $44,870, and outpatient care centers at $38,420.

Why Become a Certified Nursing Assistant?

Advantages to Becoming a CNA

  • Does not require a college degree and training takes weeks rather than years
  • Steady demand, with job growth above national average
  • Can explore a healthcare career without investing a great deal of time or money
  • Stepping stone to a nursing or other healthcare degree
  • Opportunity to help people who are ill and/or in pain

Disadvantages to Becoming a CNA

  • Physically moving patients and working in the healthcare setting carries risk of injury or illness
  • Some tasks are unpleasant, involving bodily fluids or waste
  • Low salary and little autonomy
  • Can be stressful with high patient load

How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant

Earn your high school diploma or equivalent.
State-approved programs usually require a high school diploma or GED certificate. Most programs do not require a specific GPA but may seek either passing grades in high school math and English courses or passing equivalent exams.

Apply to a state-approved CNA program.
Community colleges, high schools, and healthcare organizations, like the Red Cross, offer CNA training programs. Requirements vary by state. Some programs require students to be at least 18 years old to apply. In addition to a high school diploma or GED certificate, most programs require current vaccinations, an application, a physical health assessment, and a criminal background check.

Complete CNA training and education.
The specific training and education requirements vary by state but include coursework in health, science, hygiene, and applied training and fieldwork in skills, such as safely lifting patients and taking vital signs.

Pass your state’s CNA Certification Exam.
Certification exams typically involve two parts: a multiple choice test on coursework topics and a demonstration of skills, including physically moving a patient from a bed to a wheelchair or taking a patient’s pulse.

How Much Do CNAs Make?

In 2020, CNAs made an average $32,050 annual salary, according to the BLS. Depending on experience, the type of healthcare setting, and region of the country, CNA salaries ranged from $20,000 to $45,000, according to PayScale data. While this is less than the U.S. average salary of $56,310, the majority of jobs that earn higher average salaries also require a college degree or a longer training period.

As the U.S. population ages and the need for healthcare services in general continues to grow, the demand for CNAs will grow with it. Between 2019 and 2029, the BLS projects employment for CNAs to grow 8%, faster than the average job growth rate.

Top Paying States for CNAs

Top Paying StatesAverage SalaryTotal Number of CNAs
New York$40,62081,440
Source: BLS

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for CNAs

Top Paying Metropolitan AreasAverage SalaryTotal Number of CNAs
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA$48,42010,410
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA$43,960260
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA$42,200980
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA$41,9805,050
Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, CA$41,9505,390
Source: BLS

Top Paying Industries for CNAs

IndustryAverage Salary
Junior Colleges$49,250
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools$44,870
Federal Executive Branch$41,210
Scientific Research and Development Services$39,630
Outpatient Care Centers$38,420
Source: BLS

Frequently Asked Questions About Certified Nursing Assistants

  • What is the CNA certification exam?

    The CNA certification exam consists of a multiple choice test to measure the candidate’s knowledge and a skills assessment that includes hands-on tasks, such as taking a patient’s vital signs, washing a patient’s hands, or safely transferring a patient in and out of a bed.

  • What are the highest paying states for CNAs?

    The states with the highest pay for CNAs tend to be the states with the highest cost of living. According to the BLS, CNAs in Alaska earned the highest average at $42,500 in 2020. Those working in New York earned $40,620; $39,280 in California; $38,650 in Hawaii; and $37,160 in Massachusetts.

  • What can you do after earning a CNA?

    CNAs may want to pursue higher wages or more autonomy and responsibility on the job by becoming a nurse through additional training and certification examinations. The next level up from a CNA is a licensed practical/vocational nurse (LPN/LVN). This requires earning a certificate and passing the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical Nurses. Those interested in skipping this step and becoming an RN can pursue a nursing diploma, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree in nursing and take the NCLEX-RN examination.

  • What is the difference between a CNA and an LPN/LVN?

    One of the major differences between a CNA and an LPN or LVN is training and national certification. A licensed practical nurse (referred to as a licensed vocational nurse in some states) has approximately one year of full-time training and must take a national certification examination. LPNs are qualified to perform more advanced clinical functions for patients and earn more. For most CNAs, earning the LPN is the next career step.

Professional Organizations for CNAs

  • National Association of Health Care Assistants NAHCA's mission is to increase the professional standing of healthcare and nursing assistants and to improve the quality of healthcare by providing professional education to CNAs. Membership is open to CNAs as individuals and to organizations that purchase Champion Memberships. These include membership for the organizations' CNAs and resources for organizations to recognize the work of healthcare assistants.

  • National Network of Career Nursing Assistants The National Network of Career Nursing Assistants, also known as Career Nurse Assistants' Programs, Inc., advocates for CNAs as healthcare workers, fosters gender diversity through its task force on male nursing assistants, provides online communities, and develops ongoing professional education. Membership is open to CNAs.

Related CNA Career Resources

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Portrait of Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC offers a unique perspective. She currently teaches within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches master’s students through their culminating projects. Gleason brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and nurse leader, having held past roles at the supervisory, managerial, and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout. Gleason is also an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments and systems that contribute to the well-being of students and healthcare professionals.

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