How to Become a CNA: An Overview of the Profession

A certified nurse’s assistant (CNA) assists nurses and other medical staff in hands-on tasks ranging from taking a patient’s vital signs to bathing and dressing needs. It is important to note the distinction between a nurse and a nursing assistant. While some CNAs do administer medication, for the most part, nursing aides help nurses perform routine patient care at an entry-level basis.

It is a limited position, but it also offers great opportunity for growth and development. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the outlook for a CNA job is especially promising at 20% from 2010-2020, which is faster than average. This means that in the next ten years, those who enter the field can expect to find ready employment. In terms of salary, CNAs earned an average of around $24,000 per year in 2010. This may not seem like a high salary, but as jobs increase, salary may rise as well. CNAs hold an entry-level position in most hospitals and medical offices. Their salary reflects this. However, becoming a CNA is often a springboard to becoming a nurse or other licensed healthcare staff member.

Men and women interested in the profession may wonder how to become a CNA. The following guide offers an overview of the position, including the characteristics, education and training necessary to become a certified nurse’s assistant.

Characteristics of a CNA
Certified nurse’s assistants need to possess certain physical, mental and emotional characteristics in order to be successful in this position. Physical aspects include lifting, moving, constant standing and bending, walking and other intense movements as necessary. From lifting patients out of bed and putting them into chairs to feeding, bathing and dressing some patients, CNAs perform a wide range of physically demanding tasks throughout the day. To add to this, CNAs work at all hours of the day and night, as hospitals and other medical facilities operate on 24-hour schedules. Because CNAs usually work full time, this means that their schedules will often fluctuate due to federal guidelines for safe medical working environments.

In addition, nurse’s aides may suffer from a variety of injuries over the course of their career due to the physical stress on their bodies. It’s important that those interested in how to become a CNA understand these risks and protect themselves by learning proper lifting and handling techniques, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and ensuring that they wear the right clothing and shoes to perform their routine tasks.

Part of the training for becoming a CNA requires understanding the physical demands, but it also requires preparing for the emotional and mental demands as well. CNAs often work with the elderly or very sick. Because of this fact, they may experience horror stories and death more often than average medical personnel. Also, due to the nature of their intimacy with patients, CNAs may become emotionally attached to their clients, which results in painful experiences when they die. Assistants spend a majority of their time performing basic but intimate human needs, like bathing and feeding, so part of a CNA’s job is to become emotionally vested in a patient’s life. Potential CNAs should prepare themselves for this aspect of the job.

Education & Training
The upside to becoming a CNA is that compared to a traditional nursing degree, CNAs require little training. They must hold a high school diploma or equivalent and then attend a program specifically designed for nursing assistants. Courses last from 6 to 12 weeks depending on the program. Programs exist in a variety of forms, but the most common are taught by community colleges and medical institutions themselves. Those wondering how to become a CNA may ask about online or distance-learning programs available to them. In this case, there is some debate about the validity of these types of degrees. It depends entirely on the area and the need for CNAs. Many online programs offer the same classes taught by brick-and-mortar schools, but some argue that hands-on training, which can only be gained by attending a traditional program, matters too much to ignore. Still, a potential CNA should weigh his or her options and consider whether the area in which he or she wants to work will accept an online certification for employment purposes. In terms of cost, tuition for physical and online programs vary widely according to school. Interested applicants should ensure that whatever program they choose meets state standards for certification. Regardless of program, CNAs must take a certification exam and pass before being eligible to work. Some states also require registration with the state licensing board, though CNAs are not licensed members of the healthcare community.

CNAs can expect to learn the basics of their profession during their intensive training, but most of a CNAs job will depend on hands-on experience, which can only be gained by clinical hours or on-the-job training. This is a field where experience matters more than education, though education is a necessary prerequisite. Salary-wise, CNAs can expect to earn substantially more as they develop in their careers. Entry level nursing assistants may only earn minimum wage, while experienced CNAs can earn $20.00 per hour or more depending on the facility and area.

After the Certification
Becoming a certified nurse’s assistant is the first step for many careers. Those interested in becoming a CNA will be pleased to know that CNAs often go on to perform other, more complex work after additional training and licensing. Some states require continuing education, and some demand background checks and other steps before allowing someone to work as a CNA in places like nursing homes. Interested applicants should check with their state to find out specific requirements, especially in terms of the actual title. In some locations, a “CNA” might perform different tasks from a “nurse’s aide,” while in others, the title is interchangeable.

With their innate compassion, attention to detail and excellent communication skills, most CNAs possess the inherent qualities to become other members of the medical community. Many registered nurses begin their careers as CNAs, as it is an introduction to the healthcare field and an eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the practice. As this guide offers a general picture of the profession, interested in the specifics of how to become a CNA should check with their local licensing boards to determine prerequisites.

As discussed in the introduction, the CNA job position promises to remain steady over the next ten years, as this kind of work remains especially valuable to hospitals and smaller practices all over the country. CNAs perform such a wide variety of tasks that the demand for them will only increase as time progresses. This highly sought-after position garners much respect from not only the medical community but the patients for whom CNAs give care. Because of their close relationships with patients, CNAs often hold a higher place of respect with the public for their knowledge and warmth. As such, they might become more attached to their patients than nurses or doctors who don’t have as much regular, intimate interactions. Those considering how to become a CNA should investigate the educational requirements and emotional prerequisites more thoroughly to ensure that they have a clear picture of what’s at stake before pursuing this particular profession.