What Does a Certified Nursing Assistant Do? Your Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover how working as a certified nursing assistant can set you up for a rewarding health care career caring for those in need.

[Featured Image] A Certified Nursing Assistant works in a medical lab alongside her colleagues.

The demand for health care workers is growing for many reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic and an aging baby boomer population. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health care jobs are expected to grow 13 percent between 2021 and 2031 [1]. 

One of those jobs is a certified nursing assistant (CNA), an entry-level health care job that supports nurses in various health care settings. If you're interested in a career in health, then you might consider becoming a CNA. Read on to learn more.

What is a certified nursing assistant?

A certified nursing assistant assists patients with daily living and provides basic care. Most CNAs work in nursing homes, home health care services, and hospitals. They work under the supervision of licensed nursing staff, like registered nurses (RNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs). In many cases, the CNA serves as a patient's main caregiver.

What does a certified nursing assistant do?

As a certified nursing assistant, you'll perform a wide variety of tasks, from measuring a patient's vital signs to helping them bathe, eat, or get dressed. You'll likely be the primary daily caregiver within a nursing or residential home, and you'll often be your patient's main contact throughout the day. 

Depending on state and institutional regulations, you may be asked to take on additional responsibilities, like administering medicine. Working as a certified nursing assistant can be a deeply emotional and rewarding job since you're in constant interaction with your patients and you're directly impacting their quality of life. 

CNA salary and job outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for a CNA in the United States is $30,290 as of 2021 [2]. The BLS predicts that demand for this job will rise 5 percent from 2021 to 2031, which is as fast as the average rise for all occupations [2]. This is in part due to an expanding elderly population, who will rely on certified nursing assistants for care.

If you wish to pursue a nursing career after a few years working as a CNA, you'll benefit from a significant increase in salary. The BLS reports that the median pay for registered nurses in 2021 was $77,600, while the number of available jobs is expected to rise 6 percent between 2020 and 2030 [3].

CNA vs. medical assistant

Certified nursing assistants often work in hospitals and in nursing care facilities. Other CNA jobs can be found in home health care services. In almost any setting, the CNA's job remains the same—providing direct care to patients under the supervision of a nurse

While there is only one type of certified nursing assistant, the role is often confused with medical assistants. While both provide patient care, medical assistants primarily perform both administrative and clinical tasks, while nursing assistants are more directly involved with patient care. 

Certified nursing assistants are also not the same as licensed practical nurses (LPNs). LPNs must take additional classes and pass a national licensing exam called the NCLEX, while CNAs only need initial training and certification in order to work.


How to become a certified nursing assistant

In order to become a CNA, you'll need at least a high school diploma or equivalent. You'll also need to complete a state-approved education program in order to become certified. 

CNA training programs can take as little as three weeks to complete and are often available at high schools, community colleges, vocational schools, and hospitals. Within your CNA training, you can expect to learn how to perform some of the following tasks:

  • Ensuring patient safety

  • Checking vital signs

  • Moving patients safely

  • Caring for personal hygiene 

  • Administering CPR

Some people choose to work as a CNA while attending nursing school. Others take a job in this field to help them decide if nursing is the right calling for them before investing time and money in becoming an LPN or RN. 

Skills needed 

Working as a CNA can be a demanding job. As a health care worker, you need to be constantly attuned to the needs of your patients, especially in a setting where medical emergencies may arise. It's also important to have a good bedside manner since your behavior can affect your patients, many of whom may be elderly or vulnerable. Effective CNAs often possess the following skills:

  • Empathy: You’ll often be caring for patients facing difficult health situations or other hardships.

  • Dependability: You play a role in following a patient’s plan of care to help ensure their well-being.

  • Time management and organization: You may be working with multiple patients and with limited supervision.

  • Critical thinking: Emergencies do happen in the health care field, so it’s important to be able to think on your feet.

  • Observational skills: You likely spend more time with a patient than their doctor or nurse, so it’s typically your job to report even slight changes to their mental or physical health.

Certified nursing assistant career path

Working as a CNA is often a good entry point into the nursing profession. It will expose you to many of the tasks required of a nurse and will give you practical, hands-on experience as you learn what it's like to work in health care. Some people use their CNA training as a starting point toward becoming an LPN or RN.

Getting started with Coursera

If you want to pursue a rewarding career in the health care industry, working as a CNA is a great place to start. Get a feel for whether patient care may be a good fit for you through a beginner-friendly course, like Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us from the University of Pennsylvania or Career 911: Your Future Job in Medicine and Healthcare from Northwestern University.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Healthcare Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home.htm." Accessed October 18, 2022.

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