Your Guide to Becoming a Nursing Assistant

Osmosis Team
Published on Oct 19, 2020. Updated on Dec 2, 2020.

Navigating the medical field can be confusing—there are a variety of career options to consider, each with their own education and certification requirements. If you want to know how to become a Nursing Assistant, you’re in the right place! In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know, including:

  • What is a Nursing Assistant?

  • What does a Nursing Assistant do?

  • Where could I work as a Nursing Assistant?

  • How much are Nursing Assistants paid?

  • How many hours do Nursing Assistants work?

  • What are the benefits of being a Nursing Assistant?

  • Why are Nursing Assistants needed right now?

  • How can I apply to become a Nursing Assistant?

  • What are my career options as a Nursing Assistant?

Hopefully, the information provided here will give you some clarity on whether a career as a Nursing Assistant is right for you. Let’s dive in!

What is a Nursing Assistant?

A Nursing Assistant, known as a Certified Nursing Assistant or CNA once certified by a state board, is a healthcare professional whose main role is to aid clients with activities of daily living, such as bathing, getting dressed, eating, and answering phone calls. A Nursing Assistant is under the direction and/or supervision of a Registered Nurse (RN) or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) and may also document a client's health issues. 

Given that Nursing Assistants, RNs, and LPNs all work in medical settings and provide direct client care, how do these career paths differ? An RN must obtain a degree or a diploma and has an expanded set of responsibilities compared to LPNs and Nursing Assistants, who work under the direction or supervision of an RN. LPNs, on the other hand, must complete a year-long, formal training program. Though the scope of an LPN’s responsibilities is more limited than an RN’s, LPNs provide more extensive client care than Nursing Assistants. 

A Nursing Assistant program can be completed in as little as four weeks, though specific program requirements vary by state.

What’s the difference between a Nursing Assistant and an RN/LPN/MA?

The differences between healthcare professionals can be subtle and confusing. The below chart clarifies major differences between Nursing Assistant, RNs, LPNs, and Medical Assistants (MAs); you may find that one career path is more suited to your goals than another. 

Annual wages for Nursing Assistants, RNs, LPNs, and MAs are $29,660, $73,300, $47,050, and $34,800, respectively. 

What does a Nursing Assistant do?

Nursing Assistants are responsible for providing direct, hands-on assistance with a client's activities of daily living. These duties include:

  • Hygiene care, such as bathing, cutting hair, trimming fingernails, and brushing teeth

  • Serving food, helping clients eat, and recording their food intake

  • Changing bed sheets and linens

  • Repositioning bedridden clients and checking for bed sores

In addition, as Nursing Assistants assist an RN or LPN, they may also be tasked with:

  • Assisting with medical procedures

  • Preparing, sanitizing, and restocking examination rooms

  • Reporting clients’ health issues

  • Taking vital signs, such as temperature and blood pressure

  • Communicating any concerns or requests that client may express

Of course, responsibilities may differ depending on the setting, but in general, a Nursing Assistant can always expect to interface directly with clients.

Where could I work as a Nursing Assistant?

As Nursing Assistants provide hands-on care to clients, they may work in a variety of medical settings such as: 

  • Government organizations (like the Department of Veteran Affairs)

  • Hospitals

  • Nursing home facilities

  • Retirement communities

  • Acute Rehabilitation 

  • Clinics

  • Private homes

  • Correctional facilities

  • Mental health facilities

Though Nursing Assistants must always work under the direction and supervision of a licensed nurse, the potential opportunities are exciting. CNAs may choose to build expertise specific to one setting, or cultivate a breadth of experiences in various facilities.

How much are Nursing Assistants paid?

Though the median annual wage for nursing assistants was $29,640 per year or $14.25 per hour in 2019 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), salaries may differ depending on the state and work setting a Nursing Assistant is employed in. Data from the BLS reveals that Nursing Assistants who work for the government make the most, while those employed in assisted living facilities for the elderly make the least.

Median annual wages for nursing assistants in top industries (2019)

Average Nursing Assistant salaries in various fields.

Maybe you’re planning for the future and want to know how much you can expect to make in your state. Wages vary significantly between states. While CNAs make over $40,000 annually in Alaska on average, CNAs in Louisiana make just over $23,000. Learn the average wage in your state here.

How many hours do Nursing Assistants work?

A full-time Nursing Assistant works 8- or 12-hour shifts. Depending on the facility, full-time Nursing Assistants are expected to work 32 or 40 hours per week and may be afforded flexibility in selecting their schedule and hours. Of course, as Nursing Assistants are medical professionals, they may also be expected to work some weekends and holidays. Make sure to check what your potential employer’s expectations are!

What are the benefits of being a Nursing Assistant?

There are numerous benefits to being a Nursing Assistant! Compared to RNs and LPNs, a Nursing Assistant's educational path is relatively short, so if you’re interested in being a medical professional and working directly with clients, becoming a Nursing Assistant is one of the quickest ways to do so. 

A Nursing Assistant's work is often incredibly rewarding, as it involves developing fulfilling, long-term relationships with clients and their families. Also, as CNAs are always supervised by a licensed nurse and often working as part of a team, Nursing Assistants have no shortage of clinical learning opportunities. In conjunction with learning clinical skills, Nursing Assistants also cultivate soft skills (such as communication and emotional intelligence) that are essential in the medical field. 

Finally, if you choose to pursue more advanced nursing education, your experience as a Nursing Assistant will be valuable for your application.

Why are Nursing Assistants needed right now?

In 2020, the infectious disease COVID-19 rapidly spread, and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March. Certainly, few people predicted that COVID-19 would have the catastrophic effects that it has, claiming over 1 million lives worldwide as of this writing. 

Frontline medical workers are essential to the fight against COVID-19. COVID-19 presents a challenge to the healthcare system, as the large influx of clients threatens the treatment capacity of doctors, allied health professionals, and resources. While laypeople do their part to Flatten the Curve by staying at home, health professionals work hard to Raise the Line and boost the capacity of the healthcare system. 

That’s where you come in as a Nursing Assistant!

By becoming a Nursing Assistant, you’re infusing the healthcare system with much-needed resources (like trained professionals!) to treat all clients and minimize COVID-19’s toll, ensuring that no one in need of care falls through the cracks.

How can I apply to be a Nursing Assistant?

In general, to become a Nursing Assistant, prospective Nursing Assistants must have a high school diploma or GED and complete a state-approved training program. Training programs usually include both classroom and clinical components. Following that, you must pass the state’s NA competency examination. However, requirements do differ by state, so make sure to check what your state’s licensing guidelines are! The following is a list of links to state-specific nursing board websites that include Nursing Assistant certification guidelines, information, and frequently asked questions. 

What are my career options as a Nursing Assistant?

As a Nursing Assistant, you have the opportunity to interface directly with clients and cultivate long-term relationships with them. You also work closely with other healthcare professionals and get an intimate look at what their day-to-day responsibilities are. Nursing Assistants often use their experience as a stepping stone to becoming an LPN or RN. In fact, in some states, individuals are eligible to become certified Nursing Assistant as early as 16 years old. 

Becoming a Nursing Assistant gives you the opportunity to quickly jump into the healthcare field, learn clinical skills, and form meaningful relationships. These experiences are valuable for advancing to the next stage of your career as an LPN or RN. Alternatively, you may choose to build expertise as a Nursing Assistant in a particular medical setting and earn new responsibilities specific to that setting.

Good luck on your journey!

Hopefully, your questions have all been answered, and you now have a clear understanding of what a Nursing Assistant is—and whether becoming one is right for you. As a healthcare professional, you will be providing valuable care to clients in need. We’re rooting for your success!

NCLEX-RN® and NCLEX-PN® are registered trademarks of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc (NCSBN®). Osmosis is not affiliated with NCSBN.