You want to enter the medical field, but you aren’t sure what career options are available without a college degree. You may consider becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) to kickstart your nursing career.

Are you interested in becoming a nurse but want to start working as soon as possible? Unfortunately, it takes four years to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), which may be too long for you to wait before working. 

You want to enter the medical field, but you aren’t sure what career options exist without a college degree. So you may consider becoming a Certified This is Nursing Assistant (CNA) to kickstart your nursing career. 

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What Does a CNA Do?

Certified Nursing Assistants offer assistance to patients, mostly in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. They could also work in a rehabilitative clinic, offering patients help with daily tasks as they recover from strokes, heart attacks, brain injuries, and more. 

Some CNAs may work at adult daycares where they care for elderly attendees and adults with special needs. 

While they do not provide direct nursing care, they tend to patients’ needs. Their role is to improve comfort, be a friend to their patients, and help them go about their daily lives with as much support and care as they need. 

They work under a nurse supervisor who informs them of the best steps to take with every patient. 

CNA duties generally include:

  • Helping patients dress, bathe, and use the bathroom

  • Assisting with personal hygiene, grooming, and eating 

  • Turning or moving patients to promote blood circulation 

  • Gathering medical supplies requested by a nurse

  • Checking vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure

  • Keeping track of patients’ food and fluid intake

How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant in the USA?

CNAs in the United States date back to World War I, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that they required certifications. 

Now, you can earn a CNA certification through an accredited, state-approved CNA program. These are offered online, at vocational schools, and in community colleges. But, of course, you’ll also have to complete in-person clinical training. 

After completing your training, you must pass a CNA certification program. These programs are nursing competency tests based on the NAAP, or National Nurse Aide Assessment Program

The NAAP is the nation’s leading nursing assistant program, administering over 200,000 exams every year.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing is the premier nursing regulatory board across the United States. 

Under federal law, all CNAs must complete at least 75 hours of classroom instruction and 16 hours of clinical training. 

Once you’ve gotten your certification, you can start looking for CNA jobs. ShiftMed is free to join and instantly connects you with the most in-demand nursing jobs near you.

What Are the Steps to Become a Qualified CNA?

You can follow five steps on the CNA career path to earn your certification and start working in healthcare. 

1. Earn a High School Diploma or GED

All Certified Nursing Assistants must have a high school diploma or general education diploma (GED). If you’ve already earned yours, you can move right on to the next step.

If you are out of high school but haven’t earned a GED, look for state programs that allow you to earn yours. Most programs take under two years, and once you’ve graduated, you can move on to your CNA training. 

2. Complete a CNA Training Program in Your State

CNA regulations require students to complete classroom and clinical hours before taking the certification exam. 

These hour requirements differ by state, ranging from 75 to 180 hours.

Ensure you do not enroll in any online program that your state’s nursing board does not recognize. 

You can refer to this map to find out how many hours you’ll have to study to qualify for the CNA certification exam. 

3. Complete Clinical Training

In addition to classroom instruction, aspiring CNAs must also complete clinicals. Therefore, you learn about anatomy, physiology, biology, and healthcare techniques in the classroom. 

In clinicals, you put your knowledge and skills to practice with actual patients under a nurse supervisor. 

Clinical hours also vary by state. Some require the federal minimum of 16 hours, but the majority mandate anywhere between 30 to over 100. 

This portion of your training can be the most stressful as it's likely the first time you’ve ever been in a caregiving position. But it is also the most exciting part of your training – this is where you become a CNA through practice and experience.

Once your clinicals are over, you can take the licensing exam to become a Certified Nursing Assistant. 

4. Pass an Approved CNA Examination in Your State

Just like it’s essential to take a state-approved training program, you must also look for a state-issued CNA exam.

The CNA certification exam in every state looks slightly different, so it’s crucial to lookup local regulations. This guide can help you learn about the CNA test your state requires for you to earn certification. 

Another reason state-specific training is so important is that it aligns with the certification exam you’ll eventually have to pass to become a CNA. Individual state boards develop medical and nurse competency exams; you need a CNA program with a curriculum that aligns with exam material. 

Are the Steps to Become a CNA Different in All States? 

Yes, but there are federal requirements all 50 U.S. states must follow. 

For a person to earn CNA certification, they must complete a minimum of 75 hours of classroom instruction and 16 hours of in-person clinicals. 

However, most states require more than the minimum. This process provides students with more in-depth knowledge and skills training and patients with higher quality care. 

As a CNA, your role will provide comfort-based care to patients in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and nursing homes. In addition, you will assist patients with tasks in their everyday life, such as bathing, toileting, and eating, respecting their unique healthcare needs, and personalized care plans. 

Becoming a CNA is a great way to start working in nursing while working toward other career goals, such as being a licensed practical nurse (LPN). You can continue studying and training to become a registered nurse (RN) eventually if you so desire. 

Can You Become a CNA Online? 

Many programs through state-approved programs let you complete most or all of your instructional education remotely. This flexibility allows you to study from the comfort of home and complete training on your schedule. 

But when it comes time for clinicals, you’ll have to head to an approved healthcare facility, whether that be a hospital or a local nursing home. This part will be when you work directly with patients and have the opportunity to learn and grow with the guidance of your nurse supervisor. 

As part of the nursing aide curriculum, CNA clinicals are unpaid. This section is considered part of your education rather than paid work experience. 

What Is the Difference Between a CNA and an LPN?

A licensed practical nurse (LPN) is a step above a CNA. 

The most significant difference between the CNA and LPN is the level of care they provide. 

CNAs offer comfort-based care and companionship to their patients. They help them feel comfortable during daily activities and assist with mobility, eating, bathing, etc. 

LPNs, on the other hand, are licensed to offer more direct healthcare services. These include taking vitals, monitoring blood sugar levels, changing bandages, and giving oral medications to patients a doctor has prescribed. 

Many CNA to LPN programs are available, and you can complete training in one to two years. However, to become an LPN after CNA certification, you’ll have to complete a training program and pass the NCLEX-PN exam. 

To get your LPN license, you will need to: 

  • Graduate from an approved LPN training program

  • Successfully pass the NCLEX-PN exam

  • Possibly submit to a criminal background check 

You will also have to understand and always adhere to the nurse practice act (NPA) guidelines. These ensure you deliver the most ethical, responsive care to your patients.

Are STNAs and GNAs the Same as CNAs? 

There are several different titles for nursing aides in the U.S. depending on where you live. For example, CNAs are called State Tested Nurse Aides (STNAs) in Ohio. 

A GNA is a geriatric nurse assistant (GNA), and they work exclusively with elderly patients. 

To become a GNA, you must first complete all the required steps of becoming a CNA. After that, you can take a GNA exam and become a certified geriatric nurse assistant working in nursing homes or home care. 

STNAs, CNAs, and GNAs all have similar roles and the same duties, but their scope slightly differs. While an STNA and CNA only differ by name, GNAs have additional credentials and are specifically trained to care for seniors. 

Can You Progress From a CNA to an RN or Other Nursing Positions? 

You can transition from being a CNA to an LPN, RN, or even an NP (nurse practitioner) with additional training. While many people are happy being CNAs for years, some wish to expand their job responsibilities and opportunities.

Being a CNA is a great way to introduce yourself to healthcare, but you will not be able to perform any direct nursing services. If you want to provide this type of care to patients, you will have to complete an LPN program. You can also earn your associate’s or bachelor’s in nursing to become an RN. 

There is plenty of opportunities for CNAs to further their career. No matter what path you choose, a passion for health and a desire to help people should always be your primary motivation. 

Do Your CNA Exam Qualifications Expire? 

CNA exam qualifications are valid for two years. This expiration date means that if you want to continue working as a CNA after that, you will have to complete the CNA license renewal process.

Renewing your CNA license is straightforward — you can contact your state’s department of health or department of nursing, pay a renewal fee, and be good to go for another 2 years. However, if your license expires, you will have to retake the exam to be issued a new license.

You may not have to retake the CNA exam in some states, but you will need to pay a delinquency and renewal fee. In addition, if your CNA license expires before renewal, you cannot legally work as a CNA until you have a new license. 

How Much Do CNAs Make?

The average CNA earns around $15 an hour, or $32,000 a year. However, the exact amount a CNA can make differs depending on their state, level of experience, and location.

While most CNAs work in nursing homes, tending to the country's 1.6 million elderly patients, others work in hospitals or long-term care centers. As a result, depending on where you live and work, your earnings may differ from the national average. 

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How Long Does It Take to Become a CNA?

The average CNA training program takes 6 to 20 weeks to complete. However, because every state sets its hour requirements for classroom instruction and clinicals, the length of each training program varies. 

Generally, you can expect to become a CNA within 6 months after you start training, and you can become fully certified and free to work anywhere in your state in 1 year or less. 

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Is Becoming a CNA Worth It?

Being a CNA is an excellent opportunity to learn about what it’s like working in healthcare. If you are curious about what tending to patients is like but don’t want to commit to a full degree yet, earning your CNA is a practical first step. 

While it can be a challenging career at times, being a CNA allows you to offer care, support, and compassion to people daily. For example, you may become a welcome smile to patients in a nursing home, or help people care for themselves with dignity and respect as they recover from an injury or illness. 

CNAs are at the entry-level of pay for a nursing career and many CNAs decide to further their earning potential by becoming an LPN or RN. However, while still working in healthcare, the ability to do so makes this an excellent position for an ambitious learner eager to gain hands-on experience.