How to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA)

Written by Guest Contributor

If you’ve ever been in a hospital or a nursing home you’ve likely seen a certified nursing assistant (CNA). CNAs work under the supervisions of register nurses or licensed practical nurses to provide basic care services to patients in medical centers, nursing homes and other long term care facilities. As with many other healthcare positions, the demand for CNAs has been growing for years and according to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics, they project job growth of 11% for these positions through 2026.

Skills needed to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA)

From an educational standpoint, a CNA is required to have a diploma or GED and must pass a CNA certification program before earning their license. Typically, a CNA training course will take between six to twelve weeks to complete and includes classroom work as well as hands-on training with clinical activities. While some states differ slightly on training requirements, in general, a CNA will be trained on essential skills such as:

  • Infection control
  • Anatomy and medical terminology
  • Proper documentation techniques
  • Basic nursing skills and patient care such as taking vital signs, bathing, dressing, and grooming
  • Patient rights
  • Communication skills

The certified nursing assistant (CNA) exam

After completing classroom training, aspiring CNAs must then pass the two-part CNA exam to earn their license. The first part is a written test which consists of 60 to 75 questions depending on the testing provider. Different states use different testing providers, the three main ones being:

  • Headmaster – 75 questions
  • Prometric – 60 questions
  • Pearson Vue – 70 questions

A score of 80% or higher will pass you in every state, though you can pass in a few select states with scores down to 70%. While test taking can be nerve-wracking for some, there are a lot of excellent free CNA test practice resources available online to help prepare for exam day.

The second portion of the exam is the CNA skills test. This portion of the exam requires the potential CNA to demonstrate a selected number of skills for a test proctor. Typically, tests will include the demonstration of five skills from a predetermined list, with one or two required skills such as demonstrating proper hand hygiene. This section of the test is typically the hardest and requires diligent preparation to successfully demonstrate and explain each skill.

Obtaining a certified nursing assistant (CNA) license

Once the state CNA exam has been passed there are still additional steps to become and remain a licensed CNA. The next step is to submit for a license application to the state licensing board. This is usually a two page or less application that asks for basic information such as name, address, social security number, driver’s license number, criminal background, etc. In addition, CNAs will need to supply documentation to show they’ve completed a state approved training program along with a fingerprint for a thorough background check.

Once the above steps have been completed and a license has been obtained, a CNA will be expected to complete continuing education courses to maintain their license. Many employers will subsidize this training if asked. Typically, CNAs are required to complete 48 hours of continuing education every two years.

Finding a job as a certified nursing assistant (CNA)

There is tremendous demand for CNAs presently, and that demand will likely continue to grow in the future. This has led some employers to get creative in their recruiting efforts. Many facilities, especially nursing homes, will offer to cover the cost of CNA training for potential employees in exchange for agreeing to work for them for a minimum period of time upon completing their certification. While not every employer will offer up this kind of a deal, a quick search on any of the major job search websites should turn up a number of local opportunities near any population center.

How much does a certified nursing assistant (CNA) get paid?

The most recent number from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics pins the average salary for CNAs at $27,510 per year. That said, there are a number of factors that can impact how much a CNA gets paid. The first factor is location. The average annual salary for a CNA in Alaska, for example, is $37,950. That’s the highest average salary in the United States, while the lowest is in Louisiana, where the average annual pay is $21,880. The second factor is the industry in which a CNA works. There are a broad range of industries that employ CNAs, including the federal government and scientific research businesses. A job in one of these sectors can mean a pay increase of $10,000 or more over a job at a home health care service business or an assisted living facility.

The takeaway

Becoming a CNA can be a relatively quick and easy way to gain a stable paycheck and get a foot in the door in the healthcare industry. Certification can be gained quickly and fairly cheaply, or even free in the right circumstances. While the initial pay isn’t particularly high, many CNAs progress into transitional education programs to become licensed practical nurses or into other higher paying healthcare roles. Depending on a person’s situation and goals, becoming a CNA can be a career destination or the first step on a bigger career journey.

About the Author

Ashley Grader is a career advisor, assisting those interested in starting a career in healthcare. With over a decade of nursing experience, she assists new CNAs, LPNs, and RNs start their career on the right track.

About the author

Guest Contributor