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How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Michael Mccarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 5/12/2022

On the whole, the healthcare field is expanding at twice the average rate for U.S. occupations. This category includes nursing and related jobs, most of which are growing steadily. If you don't have a nursing degree, then working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) might be a way to break into the field and can also be a rewarding occupation in itself.

As healthcare professionals, CNAs serve an important function in a variety of medical and nursing settings. But how do you become a CNA? This page helps answer that question so you can start planning for a career.

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What Is a CNA?

CNAs help patients and clients manage their health and daily living activities. Working under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN), they perform duties that help doctors and nurses focus on providing complex, expert medical care. CNA duties can include:

  • Preparing rooms
  • Taking patients' vital signs
  • Repositioning or turning patients in bed
  • Brushing patients’ hair and teeth and shaving them if needed
  • Bathing patients and helping them with elimination
  • Dressing wounds
  • Responding to patient calls alerts
  • Cleaning rooms and bed linens
  • Helping patients eat, then recording their food intake
  • Documenting obtained information about the patient
  • Organizing supplies

This level of patient care allows CNAs to develop strong, trusting relationships with their patients.

Although we use the term "certified nursing assistant," the name for this occupation may differ by state. CNA and nurse aide are the two most common names, but they may also be called patient care assistants or state-tested nursing assistants.

What Are the Requirements for Becoming a CNA?

The answer to this question depends on where you live. However, you must meet certain education and training requirements in most places, which we detail here.

Education Requirements for CNAs

Most states require you to complete an approved program before you can test for CNA certification. You typically need only a high school diploma or GED to apply. Many community colleges offer CNA training programs, which usually take one academic semester or one to two quarters. You might also find programs offered at hospitals or technical schools.

During your studies, you'll cover the following topics.

First aid and CPR

Infection control and other medical workplace safety concerns

Basic medical coding

Vital signs

Activities of daily living

Patient hygiene

Range-of-motion exercises

Communication in a healthcare setting, including patient interaction and confidentiality

Each program includes both classroom-based instruction and a set number of clinical experience hours in a healthcare facility. Clinical training allows you to practice your newly learned skills in an active care setting.

To learn more about nursing requirements and to see a list of accredited online nursing programs by state, explore our guide to becoming a nurse.

Licensing and Certification

Once you complete an approved education program, you can apply for CNA certification or licensure — the name of the credential varies by state. You need to pass a competency exam with a written portion, an oral component, and a live demonstration of CNA skills in a simulated medical setting.

Be sure to check your state's guidelines for earning a CNA credential. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing offers links to the relevant website or contact person for each territory. Note that the council uses the term "nurse aide" instead of CNA.

Continuing Education and Certification Renewal

To keep working as a CNA, you need to renew your certification or license every two years. Because healthcare is constantly evolving, renewal hinges on both active work as a CNA and at least 12 hours of continuing education each year.

You might take continuing education in a classroom setting or as an online training module. CNA classes might cover any subjects relevant to the working professional, including the examples below.

Best practices for preventing medical errors

Resident and patient rights

How to providing compassionate emotional support for patients

Updates to proper documentation practices in medical offices

Caring for older patients

Can I Get My CNA Online?

You may be able to take some portions of a CNA program online, but other components will need to be in person. You'll complete all clinical hours at an approved facility under supervision, and there's a good chance that at least some of your classroom meetings will be in person as well. Because CNA programs are state sponsored, schools that offer them have less latitude to provide online or hybrid instruction than they would with their own certificates or degrees.

Where Do CNAs Work?

All types of healthcare facilities employ CNAs to help their nurses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the largest portion of CNAs work at inpatient skilled nursing care facilities, followed by hospitals — together, these employers account for two-thirds of CNA jobs. Other possible work environments include rehabilitation centers, adult day care centers, nursing homes, and other long-term care facilities.

State certification or licensure typically allows you to work in whichever setting you wish. You might prefer the relatively frequent turnover of inpatient care provided by hospitals, or you may gravitate toward settings with longer term care relationships, as in residential facilities.

Career Outlook for CNAs

The BLS expects the CNA field to expand by 8% in the 2020-2030 period. This job growth rate matches the nationwide average for all occupations. Regular turnover means that about 192,800 jobs will open each year through the end of the decade.

How Much Can CNAs Earn?

According to the latest BLS figures, CNAs make yearly median salaries of $30,310. This is actually less than the median pay for all workers with a high school diploma.

CNAs make the highest wages at government employers, which may include federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs. These CNAs earn median annual salaries of $37,310. Hospitals pay the second-highest wages on the whole, with median salaries of $35,870.

Why Become a CNA?

The most basic reason to become a CNA is to help people in need. Patients in hospitals and medical centers need compassionate, empathetic caregivers to guide them through potentially scary situations. If this sounds like rewarding work, you may be well suited for a CNA role.

Another reason is to gain nursing-related experience while studying for a higher degree or certificate. Many CNAs intend to do this work for some time before moving on to other occupations. But you should be aware that research suggests this is fairly uncommon. This may be because long, irregular hours with low pay can make it difficult to pursue further education.

CNAs who seek higher degrees often intend to stay in the nursing field. Becoming a licensed practical or vocational nurse is a logical next step because this typically requires a one-year certificate rather than a two-year associate degree. Another option is enrollment in a medical assistant program.

FAQs About Becoming a CNA

How Do I Become Certified to Be a CNA?

You must complete a state-approved education and training program, which may be offered through a community college, vocational school, or nonprofit group like the American Red Cross. Once you finish, you'll take an exam consisting of written questions, an oral section, and a practical demonstration of patient care skills.

How Long Does It Take To Become a CNA?

You might become a CNA in as little as four to 12 weeks, assuming you complete all assignments on time. Most CNA training programs take one semester or less, which is no more than 15 weeks. You may need to wait a few weeks to take the certification exam, plus several more to get your results. The length of your program is usually the same whether your state allows for online education or not.

How Much Does It Cost to Become a CNA?

The costs to become a CNA vary by state and sometimes by institution, so there's no accurate way to calculate an average. In general, you're responsible for the following expenses:

  • A medical exam to ensure you're physically fit to do the job
  • Instructional tuition
  • Books and supplies
  • A criminal background check
  • Exam fees

Is Becoming a CNA Worth It?

The answer depends on your personal circumstances and desired career path. Most CNAs move on to other jobs, suggesting that they view this as a job they can work full time while taking classes part time to earn a further qualification in the medical field. On the downside, CNAs earn relatively low salaries and are currently experiencing only average job growth. On a brighter note, you can enter this field after a fairly short training period.

Resources for CNAs

As a CNA, you can choose to join a professional organization dedicated to this field. These groups offer members the chance to network with other CNAs, receive discounts on continuing education workshops, and vote on policy statements to send to legislators.

You can also review our pages of related degrees if you're interested in healthcare work but not sure that nurse assisting is the field for you. The following pages detail certificates or associate degrees in the respective majors.

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