Are you thinking of becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)? If the job outlook factors into your decision to seek work as a CNA, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of nursing assistants will increase 11% between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than the average for all occupations.
If you’re interested in taking the first steps to pursuing a new career as a CNA, keep reading to learn exactly what CNAs do, where people work as CNAs, and more.
What Is a CNA?
Professionals in this type of position may be referred to as a nursing assistant, orderly, nurse’s assistant, or patient care technician. However, the CNA designation indicates that an individual has successfully passed the Certified Nursing Assistant or Certified Nurse Aide exam—the exact title varies by state.
CNAs are responsible for providing basic care to patients, which may take place in a hospital or long-term care setting or in the patient’s own home.
How to Become a CNA
Becoming a CNA involves both formal training and passing a certification exam. You'll need to enroll in nursing assistant education, which can be completed in as little as two months depending on the pace of the individual student. Unlike training for medical office positions, which may be completed online, nursing assistant programs involve both classroom learning and hands-on practice to prepare you for face-to-face patient interactions.
For the classroom portion of training, nursing assistant programs usually cover such topics as:
- Personal care
- Patient rights
- Nutrition and hydration
- Basic first aid
- Collecting samples and specimens
- Infection control
- Data gathering for medical records
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills
Federal requirements mandate a minimum of 75 hours of training for nursing assistants; however, those requirements can vary by state—some states require 120 hours or more. Most states also specify a minimum number of clinical hours, which can be gained through a clinical externship. This hands-on experience allows students to practice basic nursing assistant skills such as:
- Taking vital signs, including blood pressure, temperature, and pulse
- Taking weight and height measurements
- Recording patient information
- Properly washing and cleaning a patient
- Helping patients who require mobility assistance
In addition to completing nursing assistant coursework and clinical experience, many states require students to pass a certification exam and background check before working with patients. For example, to achieve the Florida Certified Nursing Assistant credential, graduates of a state-approved training program must also complete a background screening and fingerprinting and pass an examination. Florida’s two-part exam tests the knowledge learned in school with multiple-choice questions in the written portion of the exam and also requires students to demonstrate clinical abilities by performing nursing assistant skills. Nursing assistants who successfully complete the background screening and both sections of the exam will earn the CNA designation.
General Duties of a CNA
Work as a CNA involves carrying out a variety of basic nursing assistant duties. These responsibilities can include:
- Taking vital signs and patient measurements
- Bathing and/or washing patients
- Checking on wounds to prevent infections
- Helping patients with daily living functions such as eating, getting dressed, using the restroom, etc.
- Talking with patients and recording their reported symptoms
- Relaying patient information to doctors and nurses
- Turning or moving patients
- Helping patients transfer position (for example, from sitting to laying, sitting to standing, etc.)
These are just some of the duties you may be expected to perform as a CNA. The job description and responsibilities will vary depending on your exact job, the patients you're working with, and where you're working.
You'll also need to be comfortable working closely with patients. You'll be interacting with them face-to-face and helping them function as normally as possible, even if they're bedridden. You may also be helping them with quite intimate tasks, such as bathing them or helping them use the toilet; so you need to be comfortable and discreet in doing this.
Where Can You Work as a CNA?
Now that you have an idea of what the work entails, you may be wondering where exactly you might end up working.
As a CNA, you'll have a few different options as to where you can apply your skills, knowledge, and education. The BLS provides some insights into the work environment of nursing assistants.
General and specialty hospitals are among common work environments for certified nursing assistants. At general medical and surgical hospitals, you’re likely to encounter a wide variety of patients. CNAs at specialty hospitals, on the other hand, may primarily work with patients who have a specific condition or with particular age populations. These types of workplaces can include cancer centers, rehabilitation facilities, or pediatric hospitals.
Hospital jobs are usually full-time positions, which means they may provide benefits, job security, and access to connections with doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Hospitals may also offer a higher base salary than some other workplaces.
If you’re interested in working at a hospital, you might want to consider speaking with healthcare professionals there, attending networking events, and/or volunteering. If administrators, doctors, and nurses know you and see that you're a hard worker, you may be more likely to get a job when you apply. Sometimes, volunteer positions can turn into paying ones; so don't underestimate the power of volunteering and persistence.
Long-Term Nursing Facilities
Working at long-term nursing facilities like nursing homes and assisted living centers is by far the most common position for a certified nursing assistant. BLS estimates indicate that 40% of nursing assistants are employed in nursing care facilities, and another 11% work in retirement communities and assisted living centers. These facilities house the elderly, severely disabled patients, patients with serious illnesses, and others.
These patients usually require access to round-the-clock care, which can mean longer shifts at all hours of the day. This type of work environment can be a good starting point for CNAs; it allows you to practice the skills you learned in school, learn how to work with many patients at a time, and gain confidence in your CNA capabilities.
Since roughly half of all nursing assistants are employed in nursing and assisted living facilities, you may be more likely to land your first job with this type of organization. It can be a great résumé builder and will help you gain hands-on experience, which you can later transfer to another type of work environment.
This type of setting may also offer benefits, full-time work, and regular work hours, though it could involve overnight shifts and/or overtime.
Home Health Services
Home health aides will perform similar duties, for a similar salary, as CNAs working at nursing facilities. The main difference is that home health aides usually work with one patient at a time in the patient’s own home instead of balancing the needs of multiple patients at any given time, which can be the case at a hospital or long-term care facility.
You'll usually be providing care for patients who have similar conditions to those in long-term facilities but who prefer a home environment or have assistance from family members.
Most CNAs don't begin in this type of role, since there is usually no direct supervision or other workers to help new hires learn the ropes. Consequently, home health service agencies often prefer to hire experienced CNAs for these types of jobs.
One of the advantages of home health positions is that they may offer more flexibility than working for a facility, since you may be able to work out a schedule based on the patient's needs. It can also be lower stress than working for a hospital or long-term facility, since you'll be working with one patient at a time instead of many.
Other Places You Can Find Work as a CNA
In addition to the types of facilities and home health agencies described above, CNAs may find positions with local, state, or federal governments. For example, some CNAs are employed by state hospitals while others may work for federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Veterans Health Administration, the Department of Defense, or the Bureau of Prisons. Apart from state-run hospitals, the BLS estimates that the government employs about 4% of the nation’s nursing assistants; so these types of positions may be harder to come by than more traditional CNA roles working for hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities.
Deciding where to work as a CNA will depend on your experience, your connections, your location, and your specific interests.
Do you want a job where you're always busy, have an opportunity to work with many patients, and can learn from and share the workload with other nursing assistants? Then you may want to consider applying for jobs at a hospital or a long-term care facility.
Or are you interested in working more closely with a smaller number of patients and getting to know them on a more personal level? In that case, a home health aide position may work well for you.
Or perhaps you’d like to help provide care to veterans? If there is a VHA hospital nearby, this type of government job could be a possibility.
Ready to take the next step? If you live near Tampa or Clearwater, Florida, you may want to consider Ultimate Medical Academy’s eight-week Nursing Assistant diploma program (completion times vary depending on the individual student). Alternately, you can earn a diploma or associate’s degree in UMA’s Patient Care Technician program. These programs prepare you to sit for Florida’s CNA exam.
If you’re already enrolled in a training program and want to prepare for your first CNA role, check out UMA's articles that are designed to help you find jobs, perform well in an interview, and work toward gaining a position.