Certified Nursing Assistant Career and Degree Guide


What You’ll Do as a Certified Nursing Assistant

A certified nursing assistant job includes many roles. Learn more about the different tasks you’ll perform.

nurse helping older man with walker in hallway
nurse helping older man with walker in hallway

The main role of a certified nursing assistant (CNA) is to provide basic care to patients and help them with daily activities they might have trouble doing on their own, such as bathing and getting dressed. Working as a CNA also requires strength for physical tasks and the desire to help sometimes frail, lonely patients and others struggling with disease and illness.

If you’re a compassionate people person and enjoy helping others, this role could be right for you. Certified nursing assistants must be able to listen to patients’ concerns and ask questions to determine their needs. In nursing or long-term care facilities, a CNA is often a patient’s main caregiver. The opportunity to develop personal relationships with patients and make an impact on their daily lives can make this an emotionally rewarding career.

CNAs also work with medical technology, like billing software, health information software, and medical record charting software. Your responsibilities may also include administering medications to patients or performing other specialized tasks, depending on your level of training, experience, and state regulations. 

“A CNA does it all and sees it all. In home care, a CNA is almost an extension of the care recipient’s family, providing companion care as well as personal hygiene care,” 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 in facilities and hospitals have similar responsibilities but usually with more focused tasks so they can care for multiple residents in a timely manner. The personal care and interaction, however, is part of the role across the board.” 

What Kind of Work Does a CNA Do?

A CNA works under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN) on the front line of patient care. They should have phenomenal communication skills since it’s their job to bring all patient concerns and issues to their supervisor.

CNAs work with patients of all ages and abilities. The type of patients you care for will depend on where you’re employed and any specialized skills you’ve developed.

“The CNA is the person who spends the most intimate time with someone,” Phulesar says, “and it helps to develop your people skills in order to be effective.”

The Type of Patient Will Depend on Where You Work

CNAs work with patients of all ages and abilities. The type of patients you assist will depend on where you’re employed and any specialized skills you’ve developed. Certified nursing assistants often work with elderly or disabled patients in nursing homes or private residences.

In hospitals, certified nursing assistants are more likely to help a diverse patient population with a wide range of needs. Their patients could be young or old, and likely recovering from illness or surgery.

While a CNA’s primary role is to meet a patient’s basic needs, you may have many other duties. These will depend on the medical status of a patient, the requirements of the environment in which you work, and the type of care you’re authorized to provide.

The core functions of a CNA include:

Helping patients with activities of daily living (ADLs)

CNAs are primarily responsible for helping patients with ADLs, such as bathing, grooming, toileting, eating, and moving.

Serving meals and helping patients eat

Ensuring that patients receive appropriate nutrition can include shopping for groceries, preparing meals, and, depending on the circumstances, assisting with eating.

Lifting and moving patients

CNAs must be able to safely move patients into beds and wheelchairs and onto exam tables when they can’t do so on their own. For bedridden patients, this may include turning or repositioning patients for comfort and prevention of bedsores.

Taking vital signs

CNAs often measure a patient’s blood pressure, pulse, and temperature, and then record their findings and report them to a supervisor to determine whether action is necessary.

Maintaining a clean and sanitized environment

Depending on daily needs, this can involve changing soiled sheets, cleaning up spills, changing bedpans, setting up equipment, and reducing the spread of germs and infection in the patient’s living area.

Facilitating patient care

The daily direct contact you have with a patient also gives you the opportunity to identify bruises, blood in urine, and other injuries and report them to medical staff who can initiate care.

Communicating with healthcare team and family members

Whether you work at a facility or in a private home, you serve as a channel between patients and nurses and physicians so that all patient issues are communicated. If you work in home care, your interactions and conversations may also include family members involved in your patient’s care.

Providing companionship and friendship

Since you’ll spend so much time with a patient, you’ll often have to provide compassion and comfort to those who are lonely, frustrated, or scared.

The Physical Part of the Job

Most CNA jobs involve a significant amount of physical activity and work. CNAs spend most of their time on their feet, and they need to be able to lift patients and/or equipment. You’ll need to know the right way to perform these tasks to protect your patients, and yourself, from injury.

Learning proper body mechanics and physical techniques is part of your education. Most states test your ability to move patients and perform specific tasks in your certification exam.

What Education Will I Need?

While you won’t have to earn a college degree to work as a CNA, you’ll need a high school diploma or GED and formal training that includes classroom instruction on patient care and hands-on clinical training.

Some hospitals and nursing homes offer CNA classes to new employees, which you may be able to take for free and save on training.

Educational requirements vary by state, so it’s important to ensure that you take a state-approved program for CNAs in the state where you plan to work. Training is often available at community colleges, vocational and technical schools, and through organizations like the American Red Cross.

Some hospitals and nursing homes offer CNA classes to new employees, which you may be able to take for free and save on training.

You’ll Need to Be Licensed Before You Can Work

After completing your training, you’ll need to be certified and, in some states, licensed. This will require passing a state exam to demonstrate your competency and qualify you for inclusion on your state’s CNA registry. The CNA governing body in your state, usually the board of nursing or the health department, can provide comprehensive information on the exact criteria you must meet to work as a certified nursing assistant. For instance, some states require a criminal background check.

Where Can I Work as a CNA?

Nursing assistants account for over one-third of the nursing home workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Other top employers include continuing care retirement communities/assisted living facilities for the elderly, medical/surgical hospitals, and home health care services.

Your daily duties will vary depending on where you work:

  • Long-term care and nursing facilities: You’ll care for the same patients for longer periods of time, allowing you to establish relationships and make an ongoing difference in their lives.
  • Hospitals: You can expect to work at a faster pace and care for a broader patient population for shorter periods of time.
  • Private homes: This setting gives you more control over your schedule and allows you to work more independently than you would in a facility.  

Can CNAs Specialize?

nurse helping older patient in wheelchair

If you have an interest in a specific area of care, earning a specialty or advanced credential can expand your skills and increase your marketability in your job search.

“If you’re interested in working in a facility, then any extra certification you have will give you an advantage,” Phulesar says. “The more classes and experience you can get with caring for specialty diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, diabetes, etc., will absolutely serve you well and put you on a path toward being a leader in your field.”

If you have an interest in a specific area of care, earning a specialty or advanced credential can expand your skills and increase your marketability in your job search.

Options for CNA certification can vary by state. While your state may award some specialty certifications, most are overseen by professional organizations that determine the education and experience you need to earn their credential.

For example, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing Inc. offers a medication aide certification, and the National Board for Alzheimer Care offers a certification for caring for patients with this disease.

What Can I Expect to Earn?

The average annual salary for a certified nursing assistant is $30,720, according to the BLS.

$30,720
Average Annual Salary for CNA

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, 2019

Your actual salary may vary based on your location, experience, specialized skills or certifications, and other factors.

What’s Next for CNAs Who Want to Advance Their Careers?

Career icon

If you decide you want to expand your career options and become an LPN, you’ll have to complete a one- to two-year training program to qualify for this license.

You can also choose to pursue a two-year associate’s degree to become an RN. Bridge CNA-to-LPN or CNA-to-RN programs may award some credit for your CNA work experience, reducing the time it takes to finish your program.

“In order to move on to an LPN or RN degree, you need to have the CNA knowledge and experience, so if that is your goal, then you are on the right path,” Phulesar says.

Your CNA experience gives you valuable knowledge that you can also apply in other ways. For example, says Phulesar, you can pursue positions in CNA scheduling or administration or consider opening your own home care business managing a staff of CNAs.


anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

brooke phulesar

With professional insight from:

Brooke Phulesar

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


  • Is this page helpful?
  • YesNo