LPN vs. CNA: Choosing Your First Step in the Nursing Field


Choosing to enter the field of nursing is a significant step. Nursing can be an extremely rewarding profession, but it also comes with its challenges at times. It’s not for everyone, so before seriously pursuing a career as a nurse, you want to be sure you’ve gathered all the facts.

One of your first decisions may be what type of nurse you would like to be. With the nursing profession being complex in the amount of degrees, specializations, paths and titles you can have, it can be difficult trying to decide what you should do.

That’s why we’ve decided to start with two of the most accessible nursing careers. For those new to the nursing field, both the certified nursing assistant (CNA) and licensed practical nurse (LPN) positions are great ways to get your start in the field. Many nurses begin their careers as either and then go back to school to advance toward a registered nursing position.

We researched these two positions and compared the roles of an LPN versus a CNA to give you a better understanding of each and help you decide which one is a better fit for you.

LPN vs CNA: The basics

Before getting down to the details, let’s take a look at the broad, overall duties of each position. Once you understand what you would be doing as a CNA or LPN, you can better decide which you would enjoy most.

To start, CNAs are not truly nurses, but nursing assistants. Because of this, much of their day-to-day duties involve basic care duties. Their scope of practice is rather small, and they usually work in conjunction with a team of healthcare professionals, such as nurses or physicians. They can be found taking vital signs, lifting and transporting patients, feeding patients and assisting with bathing and dressing.

LPNs, on the other hand, are nurses. This means they are allowed to partake in more of the medical duties. LPNs perform duties such as changing dressings, inserting catheters, keeping records of patients’ health, monitoring vital signs and sometimes work in conjunction with registered nurses to help educate patients on certain medications and treatments. They also assist patients with tasks such as dressing, bathing and eating.

LPN vs CNA: Skills needed to succeed

We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 366,000 CNA and LPN job postings. Our findings revealed the most in-demand skills employers are seeking in each field. Take a look at the skillsets side-by-side to get a better idea of what each job requires.

LPN vs CNA: Skills needed to succeed

In-demand LPN skills1 In-demand CNA skills2
ACardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) Patient care
Patient Care Vital signs measurement
Treatment planning Assisting with activities of daily living
Home health Patient Assistance
Supervisory skills Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation
Patient / family education and instruction

Patient direction
Medication administration Treatment planning
Scheduling Scheduling
Vital signs measurement Patient transportation and transfer
Teaching Life support

While several of these skills overlap, you can see that LPNs require more hands-on medical skills and CNAs require more skills involving assistance and care. Regardless of which interests you most, you will learn all the required skills you need in school, so once you are ready to start your career, you are experienced and qualified.

LPN vs CNA: Salary & job outlook

When looking for a new career, you may wonder how secure that job is, as well as how much it could pay. You’re in luck if you are considering becoming a nurse—by 2030, a shortage of 1.2 million nurses is expected. With high demand and short supply, nurses will have an easier time finding jobs than most other professions.

For LPNs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 16 percent growth in employment from 2014–2024. This is much faster than the national average of 7 percent for all occupations. The median annual salary for LPNs is also solid. In 2016, the median salary for LPNs was $44,090, with the highest paying positions being in government and nursing care facilities.3

CNAs will see a surge in job growth too, with a 17 percent growth from 2014–2024. That’s a projected 267,800 jobs available. CNAs do tend to earn less, with a 2016 median salary of $26,590, but the quick training time means getting out into the workforce much sooner than any other nursing-related role.3

LPN vs CNA: Education & training

Before joining either the nursing or nursing assistant ranks, you will need to spend time in school. Both professions require education and training, although the amount of time differs. An important thing to remember is that neither of these careers is a dead-end. There is always the ability to go back to school to earn a more advanced degree and grow in your nursing career. The opportunities are abundant in the nursing field.

To become a licensed professional nurse, you will need either a Diploma or Certificate in nursing. This usually takes twelve months and involves both classroom time and clinicals. Once you have obtained your Practical Nursing Diploma, you will have to sit for the NCLEX-PN exam. You will need to pass this exam in order to be licensed and able to work.

Certified nursing assistants usually only need a high school diploma and a 4–12-week program at a community or technical college. These programs typically combine both classroom and clinical experience to teach basic anatomy and physiology, nutrition, basic patient care, how to take vital signs and other information pertinent to nursing assistants. Once students have finished and obtained a Certificate, they must take a state exam in order to become licensed and begin working.

Now you know

Nursing is a complex field and you need to know all your options before diving in. You now know the differences between licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants, so you are one step closer on your journey to becoming a nurse.

If you are wondering what the differences are between practical nursing (LPNs) and professional nursing (registered nurses), check out our article, "Practical Nursing vs Professional Nursing: Understanding the Differences."


1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 177,746 licensed practical nursing job postings, Jun. 01, 2016 – May 31, 2017).
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 188,774 certified nursing assistant job postings, Jun. 01, 2016 – May 31, 2017).
3Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.

Anna Heinrich

Anna is a Copywriter at Collegis Education who researches and writes student-focused content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes the power of the written word can help educate and assist students on their way to a rewarding education. 

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