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What is a CNA?

A CNA is a certified nursing assistant. Certified nursing assistants work closely with registered nurses and licensed practical nurses to help patients with daily care tasks and basic medical needs.
A CNA wearing blue scrubs with her hand on the shoulder of a patient in a wheelchair.

Understanding the Numbers
When reviewing job growth and salary information, it’s important to remember that actual numbers can vary due to many different factors — like years of experience in the role, industry of employment, geographic location, worker skill and economic conditions. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

If you want to make an impact on the lives of patients in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities, becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA) could be right for you. So, what is a CNA?

A CNA is a position within the field of nursing that assists patients with daily care tasks and basic medical needs. They work closely with registered nurses (RN) and licensed practical nurses (LPN) to ensure the health and safety of patients in a variety of settings.

“They’re an essential healthcare provider,” said Dr. Lyndsay Goss, director of continuing professional development in nursing for Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and a registered nurse. “They are on the front lines of working with patients in many healthcare facilities.”

Becoming a CNA is a great way to get started in the nursing field and can open up diverse career opportunities. Before you start a new career path, however, it’s a good idea to explore what being a CNA is all about.

What Does CNA Stand For?

CNA stands for certified nursing assistant. The title references the certification that is required by most states in order to work as a nursing assistant.

Depending on where you work, the role of a CNA may have a different title based on the state requirements for certification and licensure. In some states, for example, nursing assistants need a license to practice and are then called licensed nursing assistants (LNA), said Goss.

What Does a CNA Do?

Katina Schwartzhoff with the text Katina SchwartzhoffCNAs are a valuable part of the healthcare field. They work closely with patients, helping them with many aspects of daily living that they may not be able to do on their own.

“CNAs are the ones that are really hands-on with patients and spend a lot of time with them,” said Katina Schwartzhoff, nursing faculty at SNHU and a registered nurse. “They do the personal care and offer a lot of emotional support.”

According to Goss and Schwartzhoff, a CNA is typically responsible for patient care tasks, including:

  • Bathing, changing clothes and assistance with using the bathroom
  • Helping patients get meals and assisting with feeding
  • Maintaining cleanliness to assist with infection control
  • Moving patients, assisting with walking and transporting patients for care or testing
  • Taking vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure

Goss, who started her medical career as a CNA, said certified nursing assistants work very closely with other nursing professionals, often reporting back on patient progress or concerns to nurses and physicians.

“CNAs may be the ones who notice something first in a patient that needs to be further assessed,” she said. “They’re able to be those eyes and ears for other healthcare providers. They are at that central point of patient care.”

Where Can a CNA Work?

A certified nursing assistant can work in a variety of healthcare settings, said Schwartzhoff. Some of the most common places to work as a CNA include:

  • Hospice
  • Hospitals
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Medical clinics
  • Nursing homes

Within each of these facilities, there are many different roles a CNA can take on. In a hospital, for example, a CNA might work in the emergency room, intensive care unit or maternity ward.

“The field is very wide open,” Schwartzhoff said. “You can really get into specialized areas to assist the rest of the medical staff.”

How Do You Become a CNA?

To become a CNA, you must complete a nursing assistant training program that is approved by the state you plan to work in and pass a state competency exam.

Dr. Lyndsay Goss with the text Dr. Lyndsay GossTraining programs are available from a variety of institutions, including hospitals and other medical facilities, community colleges and even some high schools or vocational schools, said Goss.

According to the American Red Cross, a provider of CNA training programs, students are typically able to complete their training and sit for a state competency exam within four to eight weeks.

Specific program requirements will depend on the state you live in, said Schwartzhoff.

Some states require more classroom training hours, for example, while others may require a licensure exam instead of a certification.

Is a CNA a Type of Nurse?

A CNA is not a type of nurse, but they do work very closely with nurses and other healthcare professionals to care for patients. The differences between a CNA and an RN are quite stark, however.

A registered nurse must complete at least a two- or four-year nursing degree program and must also meet specific clinical requirements. Registered nurses must also pass a licensure exam. Becoming a CNA, on the other hand, does not require a specific degree or license in most states.

CNAs and RNs also take on different roles when caring for patients. CNAs assist with basic care tasks such as feeding or walking. RNs are responsible for more advanced medical needs, including administering medication, diagnostic testing and operating medical equipment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Is a CNA a Good Career?

Becoming a CNA is a great way to get started in the medical field. By completing a CNA training program, you can gain critical skills that are in demand at medical institutions across the country.

According to the BLS, employment of nursing assistants is projected to grow 5% between 2021 and 2031, with about 220,200 new job openings for CNAs and similar roles expected each year over the decade.

As the population ages, CNAs will continue to be in demand to help care for an increasing number of people with chronic or progressive conditions, according to BLS. Nursing assistants working in the home health field, in particular, can expect to see a 20% increase in job openings by 2031.

How Much Does a CNA Make?

Your earning potential as a CNA may vary depending on where you work. The median annual wage for nursing assistants was $30,310 in May 2021, according to BLS data.

Nursing assistants working for government agencies or hospitals earned the highest pay rates, according to BLS, bringing in $37,310 and $35,870 each year, respectively.

Can a CNA Become an RN?

Working as a CNA can provide many opportunities to expand your healthcare career. Goss said working as a nursing assistant provides a key introduction to the nursing field and gives you a chance to build vital skills before jumping into nursing school.

“It gives you that opportunity to know if nursing is the right career path for you,” said Goss. “It’s not an easy job. There are many physical demands and emotional demands, so it can let you know if this is the right choice.”

Additionally, because nursing assistants and nurses are in such high demand, some hospitals and other medical facilities offer higher education benefits to their staff. You could enroll in a nursing degree program while working as a CNA and further your education at a reduced or even free cost, Goss said.

According to Schwartzhoff, working as a CNA can also make entry into competitive nursing programs easier because of the professional experience built while on the job.

“A CNA certification allows students to know the basics of nursing and demonstrates that they do have the skills to be in a nursing program,” she said.

What are the Pros and Cons of Being a CNA?

A clipboard icon with a "Pros and Cons" list with the text Pros, ConsLike any career, there are benefits and drawbacks to working as a CNA. Exploring these pros and cons can help you decide if being a CNA is the right career for you.

Pro: Build Essential Skills

One of the biggest benefits of working as a CNA, said Schwartzhoff, is the opportunity to build critical soft skills, such as communication, delegation and collaboration, by working within a team of nurses, physicians and other medical professionals.

These in-demand skills can give you a leg up when advancing your career, whether you decide to stay in healthcare or move on to another field.

Pro: Quick Training Programs

The quick training program for CNAs is another benefit, Schwartzhof said, since you can start working in the medical field and start getting hands-on experience faster than with a typical nursing degree program.

Pro: Flexible Work Schedules

Most CNA jobs offer a lot of flexibility, said Goss. If you’re balancing work with other responsibilities, there are plenty of opportunities to work off-hours, such as nights and weekends. CNAs also have the ability to work overtime and earn more money.

This flexibility is especially helpful if you want to further your education and earn a degree while working full-time.

Con: Nontraditional Work Hours

While the flexibility of working nights and weekends may be seen as a benefit to some CNAs, others may find this a challenging part of the job. CNAs are typically needed 24/7 in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities, which means working on holidays may be part of the job, said Goss.

Con: Physical and Emotional Needs

Goss said the biggest challenges of working as a CNA are often the physical and emotional demands of the job. Not only are CNAs responsible for lifting and moving patients, they may also be assisting patients at the end of their lives or in other vulnerable states.

“It’s a job that keeps you active, but it can increase the risk of injuries,” Goss said. “There’s also a high risk of burnout and emotional draining. For anyone who chooses to move into a career as a CNA, it’s so important to make time for self-care and your own mental health.”

Are You Ready to Become a CNA?

Becoming a CNA can give you a solid foundation on which to build a rewarding healthcare career. If you hope to one day become a nurse, starting as a CNA not only builds key skills, it can also set you up for better collaboration in the future, said Schwartzhoff.

“If you’re a CNA before you’re a nurse, it makes you appreciate the CNAs and helps you as a nurse understand what their role is,” she said.

One of the most rewarding aspects of a CNA career is the impact you can have on the lives of others, said Goss.

“If you’re interested in helping others in a way that most people may never have the opportunity to do, then go for it,” she said. “You can work with people in some of their most vulnerable moments and be that caring person for them…being a CNA was one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done.”

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online nursing program that can best help you meet your career goals.

Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.