What Is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in the USA?

By ShiftMed Team//Nursing Profession, CNA

For many individuals interested in joining the nursing field, becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) is one of the initial steps. It's an ideal way to break into the medical sector, get experience and start earning income in a relatively faster and simpler way.

A career as a CNA is a valuable and fulfilling path in and of itself. But it also offers the best opportunity for those interested in other nursing or healthcare areas. 

CNAs can advance to become Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN), Geriatric Nursing Assistants (GNA), or obtain a higher-level degree to become a registered nurse(RN).  

Working as a Certified Nursing Assistant provides invaluable experiences and many advanced career programs take the CNA certification and experience into account during advanced training.

Still, many aspiring nursing assistants have a few common questions.

What Is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) is an entry-level professional in the health care team who provides basic nursing tasks to patients under the supervision of licensed medical staff such as doctors, therapists, nurses, and other healthcare providers.

As the contact between patients and medical staff, CNAs usually work in hospitals, nursing homes, independent living, assisted living, and other healthcare facilities. They provide patient-care tasks, including taking vital signs, bathing, feeding, dressing, and helping them with daily activities.

Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant is an ideal way of joining the nursing field without going through years of college education to earn a degree. They typically spend less time in school than either LPN or RN. 

With a CNA certification, you can begin working and gain valuable experience within a relatively short period. Regardless, CNAs are a vital part of the healthcare field, and for many, it is an ideal path that can open other opportunities in the nursing career.

What Is the Difference Between a CNA, GNA, & STNA?

A CNA, or Certified Nursing Assistant, is a healthcare provider certified by the board of nursing after completing an approved nursing assistant program. CNAs typically provide non-medical patient care under the supervising doctors, LPNs, or RNs by monitoring general patient health and recording changes, taking vital signs, and helping patients with daily living activities such as eating, bathing, dressing, etc. And they work in nursing homes, home care, hospitals, assisted living facilities, etc.

CNAs don't have to take the state exam. However, they have to take the state exam and get certified to become a GNA. GNAs often work in similar facilities as CNAs, especially in long-term ones such as assisted living and nursing homes.

On the other hand, STNA, or State Tested Nursing Assistant, is only used in Ohio. These are regular nursing assistants (LNA, CNAs, or GNAs) who work in similar environments (nursing homes, home care, hospitals, and assisted living) under other licensed healthcare professionals to take and record vitals and help with daily living activities. 

The only difference with a Certified Nursing Assistant is that STNA is a term solely used in Ohio. However, they have similar training and duties as CNAs.


What Is the Difference Between a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) & Registered Nurse (RN)?

While the two sound familiar, there are several differences between CNAs and RNs.

The main difference between RN and CNAs is their roles in the nursing field. While a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) provides primary patient care to ensure patient comfort and works under registered nurses, RNs perform higher-level patient care roles and work under physicians. As a result, RNs receive a higher level of education and training and are qualified to advance treatments and administer medication to patients.

Regarding duties, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics states that Certified Nursing Assistants check vital signs and assist patients in eating, bathing, and using the toilets. In addition, they help patients move around, such as between treatment areas, turn them in bed, and in case of complaints or patient concerns, the CNA should relay the information to the RN.

Registered nurses have more significant duties in treatment and patient health care. They assess patients' conditions, check medical histories, and often work with doctors. 

The BLS also notes that RNs can work with treatment plans, administering medications, and monitoring or operating medical equipment. In addition, RNs provide patient education, helping them understand their medical condition and subsequent treatment or recovery plans.

Essentially, RNs receive higher education than CNAs. To practice, they must obtain a state license through the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). 

Additional certifications like cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and essential life support (BLS) are sometimes required.

On the other hand, CNAs need to complete a nursing training program and on-the-job training. In addition, some states require CNAs to take a competency exam.                                                                            

What Work Does a CNA Do Day-to-Day?

Typically, CNAs spend more time with patients than doctors or nurses. Therefore, they understand their health conditions and behaviors. They readily understand each patient and often notice emotional and physical changes fast.

As such, CNAs work to ensure the well-being of patients by taking various roles that assist with daily living activities. Whether identifying memory issues, increased pain, or reduced mobility, CNAs play critical roles in the early detection of health issues. Individual CNA work can vary based on the work environment and the patients they care for, but typical duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Monitoring and reporting patient needs and other issues to doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

  • Repositioning or turning patients

  • Taking and recording vital signs

  • Answering patient call buttons

  • Ensuring patient comfort and helping them with their daily needs like brushing teeth, feeding, bathing, dressing, cleaning, and toileting.

  • Assisting patients in moving around

Responsibilities often vary based on the employment location and the nurses' needs. In addition, these duties are determined by various individual states, and each individual should ensure they are following the state guidelines.

Where Do CNAs Work?

Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant offers endless options. CNAs can work in various healthcare environments requiring nursing assistants to act as a connection between the patient and the nurse, in-patient hospitals or long-term facilities such as nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, home care, assisted living establishments, etc. However, they rarely work in outpatient clinic settings.

Their duties may sometimes depend on where they work. The patient number can also vary along with the setting. In hospitals, CNAs can work in

As a Certified Nursing Assistant, you have abundant opportunities. You can work in places and with patient populations that interest you.


What Is It Like to be a CNA?

CNAs experience substantially varying workdays depending on the environment, their work hours or roster, and the type of patients they serve. For instance, a nursing assistant working weekends or night shifts in a home care facility has a different work experience than one hourly shifts per week in a rehabilitation center.

In most cases, CNAs work shifts lasting 8 to 12 hours, with the latter getting an extra day off. However, most jobs require 32-40 hours per week, and many CNA positions need them to work at least one weekend shift per month.

CNAs serve on the frontline to provide primary patient care and make them feel calm and comfortable. They must enjoy interacting with different people daily and ensure they adhere to patients' needs. To do their duties well, CNAs need multiple skills and attributes, including:

  • Dependability - Must be responsible and reliable to complete all the tasks required for patient care.

  • Patience - Some patients can be irritable or demanding, and others are just hurting or frustrated from their inability to perform the little tasks they used to do. Being patient will help you handle situations more effectively.

  • Compassion - Dealing with vulnerable people needs someone with an understanding ear who cares about their needs.

  • Composure - The work can be stressful. From dealing with patients who lash out to monitoring a patient on a ventilator, managing your stress and staying composed are necessary.

  • Physical Fitness - A CNA job is an active one with many walking and moving, lifting, or turning patients.

The work also requires you to be dedicated and work shifts depending on the environment and duty roster. Sometimes CNAs are required to work overtime, during weekends or holidays. CNAs can also qualify for on-call pay roles.

How Much Do CNAs Make?

According to the BLS, nursing assistants earn a median annual wage of $30,310. The median yearly salary indicates the salary in which half the workers in a field earn more than that amount and half less. 

Those in the top 10% earned an average of $44,240, while those in the lowest 10% received less than $23,880. CNAs' salaries vary substantially based on different factors like the work setting and location. So those considering this career path should research and ensure typical salaries meet their needs.

Recommended Reading - How much do CNAs make?

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Career as a CNA

As with any career path, becoming a CNA has advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Choosing a Career as a CNA

A career as a CNA provides multiple benefits and rewards that exceed the satisfaction and fulfillment of helping vulnerable individuals.

  • Quick entrance - CNA programs are fast-track, taking four to six months. The CNA Program makes it easier for CNAs to enter the field and earn money in a few months. Plus, the training is inexpensive compared to other professions within the healthcare field.

  • Job flexibility - CNAs have the flexibility to control and negotiate the shifts, days, and hours they work.

  • Job security and stability - The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the demand for nursing assistants will increase by 8% through 2030, translating into numerous new jobs and significant job security.

  • Variety of Workplaces - Certified Nursing Assistants can work in various environments depending on preferences and experience levels. Each workplace has different perks, allowing individuals to work in an area that best suits them.

  • Testing career waters - CNA is an excellent opportunity to decide whether you want to be in the nursing or healthcare industry.

Most nursing assistants agree that one of the most significant advantages of the role is the sense of purpose and fulfillment while caring for patients. In addition, they have the chance to watch the positive impact their services have on others.

Disadvantages of Choosing a Career as a CNA

  • Low salaries - In 2020, the median wage for CNAs was $30,850, which is far below RNs' median salary of $75,330. Those who want to have better salaries must pursue additional training and education.

  • Physical strength - As highlighted above, CNAs' duties require flexibility and physicality. It can be challenging and strenuous for individuals with injuries or physical ailments to perform their roles.

  • Demanding - While it might be fulfilling, being a CNA can also be stressful. From dealing with patients who are angry or irritated to losing a patient.

  • Limited growth opportunities - CNA positions provide little room for individual development and growth. It's challenging to move up the ladder without getting back to school.

  • Personal scheduling challenges - Many CNAs are regularly required to work overtime or during weekends and holidays. Others also work on rotating shifts with different times and days each week. This lack of consistency makes planning personal lives a challenge for most individuals.           

How to Become a CNA 

Becoming a CNA requires individuals to fulfill a few requirements, including

  1. Obtain a high school diploma or GED.

  2. Complete a state-approved CNA training program.

  3. Get an in-person clinical experience or training.

  4. Pass the state-approved CNA certification exam

The process is faster and more straightforward, at least when compared to other medical professions. In addition, it takes less than a year, making it one of the most attractive choices for individuals looking to join the medical field without the hassle of a degree.

Recommended Reading - How to become a CNA

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Assistant?

The answer to this question isn't simple or precisely cut and dry, as it depends on many factors, including the specific program you choose and how ready one is for the exam. However, most CNA programs usually take between 4-12 weeks to complete before becoming certified. Some courses might take longer, up to six months or more.


A career as a CNA allows you to work in the healthcare and hospitality industry, providing long-term and short-term care to various patients. With all the information, you can take a leap and begin a career as a CNA through a certification course and start working in the nursing field in just a few months.

As a CNA, you have a promising career, whether you decide to stay a CNA or advance your career. If you already have a CNA certification, apply to ShiftMed. We are constantly looking for nursing assistants to fill numerous positions across the country. Apply today!