CNA Career Guide: Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant

Certified Nursing Assistant Career and Degree Guide

A career as a certified nursing assistant can be gratifying for those who are drawn to healthcare and enjoy helping others.

What Is a CNA?

What’s a CNA anyway? Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) provide a wide range of basic care to patients who are unable to manage their needs alone. A relatively short training program plus certification will qualify you for a role in improving the quality of life for individuals who need help because of illness, age, or disability.

In addition to helping patients with daily tasks, CNAs spend time taking vital signs and recording information about a patient’s condition. As a result, a CNA serves as an invaluable link between a patient and the rest of their healthcare team.  

Working as a CNA can be emotionally rewarding for those who value making a difference in the lives of others. In many cases, certified nursing assistants have the chance to develop personal relationships with their patients since they often work with the same individuals for long periods. This aspect of the job often includes providing emotional support to patients and can be one of the most rewarding benefits of being a CNA.

Working as a CNA can be emotionally rewarding for those who value making a difference in the lives of others and enjoy developing personal relationships with their patients.

“Many CNAs got the job because they were interested in being at the bedside, and the primary reinforcer for the nursing assistant is the relationship they have with the patient,” says Genevieve Gipson, RN, MEd, RNC, and director of the National Network of Career Nursing Assistants and Career Nurse Assistants Programs Inc.

Who Becomes a Certified Nursing Assistant?

There’s no typical profile for a CNA student. The field is open to anyone who meets the qualifications established by their state. However, for many certified nursing assistants, the role is more than a job.

“So many CNA stories that I hear have the common connection that they love helping people and were compelled to learn more after having an experience with a loved one who needed personal care assistance,” says Brooke Phulesar, community liaison for Visiting Angels, Eastern Shore, in Easton, Maryland, and vice president of the Mid-Shore Nursing Assistant Advisory Council. “CNAs were either impressed by other CNAs they saw in the field or were disappointed and saw an opportunity to make a difference.”

While CNA is a common title, your state may refer to the role as a nurse aide, registered nurse aide, licensed nurse aide, state-tested nursing assistant, or a similar title.

Do Any of These Profiles Fit You?

While CNA students come from all types of backgrounds, many share a desire to help others. Do you see yourself in one of these profiles?

Who: A high school graduate

Why they enroll: CNAs can experience what a nursing career has to offer without the requirement of a college degree.

Who: A person who wants to work in healthcare

Why they enroll: A job in healthcare can provide job security, and becoming a CNA is a great starting point.

Who: Someone looking to enter the nursing field quickly

Why they enroll: CNA programs take between four and 12 weeks to complete.

Who: Someone making a career change

Why they enroll: Some people decide later in life that they want to explore a job in healthcare and work with others on a personal level.

Who: A person interested in becoming a nurse

Why they enroll: Nurses need a college degree, and working as a CNA can be a stepping stone to a two- or four-year nursing program.

Certified Nursing Assistant Job Basics

A CNA’s role typically involves assisting patients with activities of daily living, basic tasks that include bathing, grooming, toileting, eating, and moving. This can involve emptying bedpans, changing soiled clothing and sheets, and cleaning up bodily fluids.

While this part of the job allows you to make a difference to people in need, it can also be physically demanding. Certified nursing assistants are active healthcare workers who are on their feet for most of the day as they work to lift patients, turn them over, transfer them in and out of bed, and push them in wheelchairs.

A CNA’s role typically involves assisting patients with activities of daily living, basic tasks that include bathing, grooming, toileting, eating, and moving.

CNAs also fulfill an important role on a patient’s healthcare team since they’re often responsible for taking a patient’s vital signs. CNAs may use patient software to record and report this data and communicate other important observations to other members of the team.

Since certified nursing assistants support licensed nursing staff and work under their direction, CNA duties can vary depending on the daily needs of the facility or a patient’s physical condition.

Qualities of a Successful Certified Nursing Assistant

As a CNA, you’ll have daily contact with patients who may be elderly, ill, or recovering from surgery. Other patients may have physical and/or emotional disabilities. While CNA classes will prepare you for all aspects of the job, certain innate qualities will also help you succeed as a certified nursing assistant.

“I think sometimes people underestimate the importance of being human with someone,” Phulesar says. “The personal touches that a CNA can give and the one-on-one attention is what clients, residents, and patients remember the most.”

Top 10 Traits of a Successful Certified Nursing Assistant


Patients will rely on you to help with daily activities like bathing and eating.


A kind and caring nature will help patients feel emotionally supported.

Physically fit

You’ll move, lift, and adjust patients as they get out of bed, dress, stand, and walk.


You’ll need to pay close attention to changes in a patient’s condition.

Quick thinker

You’ll have to act fast and make quick decisions when patients need you.

Team player

Certified nursing assistants are part of a larger healthcare group that includes nurses and other CNAs.

Good listener

CNAs should be receptive as patients talk about symptoms, pain, and other concerns.

Positive attitude

An upbeat outlook is helpful when things get hectic or when patients are feeling down.

Good communicator

Being able to clearly explain instructions to a patient or client is essential.


Things won’t always go as planned, so CNAs need to be able to adjust to changes smoothly.

Where Do CNAs Work?

Nursing care facilities employ the majority of certified nursing assistants, though there are opportunities with many other types of employers as well. Most employers need CNAs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This can be beneficial if you’re looking for a flexible schedule or the chance to earn overtime by working extra shifts or off-hours.

“There are all sorts of opportunities for CNAs—hospitals, long-term care facilities, private duty home care, hospice, and home healthcare,” Phulesar says.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the following industries have the highest levels of CNA employment:


Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)


Continuing care retirement communities and assisted living facilities for the elderly


General medical and surgical hospitals


Home healthcare services


Individual and family services

CNAs can also work in prisons, schools, children’s hospitals, physicians’ offices, and group homes.

CNA Requirements: Education Needed

While a CNA is an entry-level job, you’ll need training and education to perform your responsibilities safely and effectively. Learning the right precautions and procedures is necessary to protect your patients, as well as yourself.

“There is a precise skill set involved in being a nursing assistant,” Gipson says.

CNA training programs usually last between four to 12 weeks and are often available at community colleges and vocational schools. Organizations like the American Red Cross, as well as some hospitals and nursing homes, may also offer classes in your area.

To work as a certified nursing assistant, you’ll have to complete a state-approved training program. If a program doesn’t have state approval, it won’t qualify you for a role as a CNA.

CNA programs usually last between four to 12 weeks and are often available at community colleges and vocational schools.

Federal law requires that CNA programs include at least 75 hours of training, though states can set criteria that exceed that. For specific requirements, check with the organization that oversees CNAs in your state—usually the board of nursing or the department of health.

What You’ll Learn in a CNA Program

Programs include a combination of classroom instruction and clinical training. You’ll learn a wide range of skills and information related to:

  • Bathing and dressing procedures
  • Taking vital signs
  • Properly transferring and moving patients
  • Controlling infections
  • Communicating effectively
  • Handling emergency situations
  • Maintaining a clean and safe environment
  • Understanding the basics of anatomy, physiology, and body mechanics
  • Feeding and nutrition

Completing a state-approved program qualifies you to take the CNA competency exam required by your state. After passing this exam and fulfilling any other requirements, you can be added to your state’s CNA registry, a list of certified nursing assistants who meet federal and state work requirements.

CNA Fast Facts

Career level: Entry-level

Education: State-approved program

Exam requirement: Passing score on state competency exam

Certification: Inclusion on a state list of CNAs

Certification renewal: Usually every two years

Is Financial Aid Available?

While CNA programs are typically less expensive than nursing diplomas or degree programs, you may still need help financing your CNA education. The type of financial aid available depends on the type of school you choose.

You may be eligible for federal financial aid if you attend an accredited vocational school or community college. Accreditation is a review process that determines whether your school meets educational standards. You can verify a school’s accreditation on a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.

You’ll have to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine your eligibility for financial assistance. The financial aid office of your school can provide help with the application process.

You May Qualify for Scholarships

Check whether your school has scholarships for CNAs or nontraditional learners. Many organizations are committed to helping students get a start in healthcare or pursue second careers. Look for grants and scholarships from local, state, and national nursing or associations, as well as private foundations. You may also qualify for scholarships or educational awards based on factors like your geographic location, gender, or ethnicity.

You may even be able to get free CNA training. Some hospitals and nursing homes offer free training for students who agree to work for them after they earn state certification.

Job Outlook and Earning Potential

5% job growth 4.1%

Job Growth

As the demand for health care services increases in response to a growing older population, CNAs are positioned to fill a need in hospitals, long-term facilities, and private homes. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for CNAs will grow 4.1% through 2032, right on the national average for all occupations.

The median annual salary for a certified nursing assistant is $35,760. It’s important to note that your pay may vary depending on your years of experience, location, employer, and other factors.

The median annual salary for a certified nursing assistant is $35,760. It may vary depending on factors such as your experience, location, and employer.

How Can CNAs Advance Their Careers?

nurse holding arm of older man and assisting walk outdoors

As you gain work experience, you may decide that you want to specialize in providing a certain type of care or work with a specific patient population. Earning a specialty certification can help you advance your career and qualify you for positions that need your expertise. CNAs can earn certification in areas including hospice care, Alzheimer’s disease, and medication.

Some certified nursing assistants decide to advance their careers by becoming an LPN or RN. Doing so can involve getting an education that takes anywhere from one year for LPNs to between two and four years for RNs. You may be able to take advantage of a bridge program that reduces the amount of time it takes to complete an LPN or RN program by giving you credit for your CNA experience.

Do CNAs Have Continuing Education Requirements?

Like all healthcare professionals, certified nursing assistants must stay up to date on current medical knowledge and practices. Federal law mandates a minimum of 12 hours of continuing education every year for CNAs. However, states have the authority to require more and specify the topics.

Common topics for CNA continuing education courses include:

  • Brain and spinal cord injuries
  • Infection control
  • Domestic violence
  • Elder abuse
  • HIPPA rules and regulations
  • HIV and AIDS
  • Safely transporting patients

CNA continuing education is often available online, which may make it more convenient for you to meet your state’s requirements. Some employers reimburse CNAs for their continuing education expenses or provide their own courses to make sure their staff maintains state certification.

anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

brooke phulesar

Brooke Phulesar

Community Liaison for Visiting Angels, Eastern Shore, MD, and Vice President of the Mid-Shore Nursing Assistant Advisory Council 

Genevieve Gipson, RN, MEd, RNC

Director of the National Network of Career Nursing Assistants and Career Nurse Assistants Programs Inc.