by Kaitlin Louie
Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), also known as Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) depending on the state in which they work, provide patients with basic nursing care and medical treatment under the guidance of physicians and registered nurses (RNs). Their duties may include taking patients’ vitals, preparing them for examinations or procedures, keeping track of their conditions, performing basic lab work, and providing care for long-term residents of hospitals. LPNs and LVNs actively work on a daily basis to improve the well-being of people suffering from medical complaints and conditions.
LPNs/LVNs typically work full-time in many different healthcare settings, including nursing homes and facilities, general hospitals, physicians’ offices, private homes, and community health care facilities. They interact regularly with patients and their families, as well as doctors and RNs. Their role is distinct from both those of registered nurses and medical assistants in that it is focused primarily on patient care. Medical assistants typically perform both clinical and administrative tasks to help a medical office or hospital run more smoothly, while RNs generally have a managerial role in which they coordinate patient care and supervise LPN/LVNs. Students looking to pursue a career as an LPN/LVN are required to complete a state-accredited LPN/LVN program at a school or hospital. Such programs generally grant individuals diplomas/ certificates or associate degrees upon their completion of the curriculum. LPNs and LVNs are also required to become licensed by passing a national licensing exam before they can begin working (bls.gov, Occupational Outlook Handbook*).
If interested in a career as an LPN/LVN, the following questions are helpful to consider and investigate:
- How does one become a licensed practical or vocational nurse?
- What LPN programs are available?
- What does the LPN licensing exam, the NCLEX-PN, involve?
- What are the key job responsibilities for licensed practical and vocational nurses?
- What tools and technology do LPNs and LVNs routinely use?
- What is the typical job environment for licensed practical nurses and licensed vocational nurses?
- What associations are available to LPNs and LVNs, and how are they helpful?
- What types of professional certifications are available, and how are they useful?
- What advancement opportunities are available to LPNs and LVNs?
- What is the employment outlook for network and systems administrators?
- What is the average LPN/LVN salary nationally?
- What are some related careers?
To learn more about the career possibilities an LPN/LVN degree may give you, check out CareerColleges.com’s interview with Sharon Glynn. Read through CareerColleges.com’s interview with Patte Washco, LPN/LVN instructor, for her insights on nursing education programs.
While there are many paths one can take to become an LPN/LVN, the steps typically include:
- Take prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, human anatomy and/or mathematics.
- Apply to and enroll in a nursing education program at a community college or technical school.
- Pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN).
- Obtain training and certification in Basic Life Support (BLS).
- Apply to LPN/LVN jobs at local healthcare facilities.
- Pass any necessary health screenings and/or background checks.
- Maintain practical nursing license and BLS certification, while obtaining work experience in order to potentially advance in the field.
- Investigate additional, optional certifications that allow for specialization within practical nursing.
What LPN programs are available?
In order to practice professionally, LPNs and LVNs must complete a state-accredited educational program. Licensed practical nursing programs are typically available at community colleges, technical schools, vocational schools, and some state universities, though certain hospitals also offer them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), LPN/LVN candidates should attend a program that is accredited by their state’s board of nursing. Depending on the educational institution, candidates may earn a certificate, diploma, or associate degree.
Admissions requirements for nursing programs generally requires applicants to pass an aptitude test, pass certain physical health tests, and also obtain CPR certification. Practical nursing programs at certain community colleges may also require students to take prerequisite classes such as biology, chemistry, and psychology prior to admission.
LPN training programs combine conceptual material and principles of medical care with hands-on clinical experience. Examples of classes may include:
- Human Anatomy and Physiology—the study of human body systems and their functions, including common disorders and diseases associated with each system. Includes the study of environmental factors in the development of certain diseases and disorders.
- Microbiology—the study of infectious diseases, bacteria, and how they affect the human body.
- Psychology and Mental Health Care—principles of mental health care and how to address patient issues of stress, mental illness, grief, and depression, among other psychological and emotional challenges.
- Pharmacology—the different classes of drugs and how they function in the body to treat certain diseases and conditions.
- Physical Assessments—how to conduct a physical assessment of an adult patient, including how to evaluate the health of an individual’s respiratory, digestive, lymphatic, and cardiovascular systems through visual inspection, touch, listening, and in some cases laboratory tests.
- Human Development—human growth and development throughout the lifespan, including the physical, mental and emotional changes that come with these developments.
- Nursing Care Principles and Practices—the principles and methods of nursing care for different age groups ranging from child to adult. Caring for individuals with acute or chronic illnesses, developmental issues, infections, and/or behavioral problems.
- Community Health and Nutrition—the science of proper nutrition and its role in the maintenance of health and the prevention of medical conditions.
- Sexual Health—sexual development, hormones, STDs, and sexual health issues specific to men and women across the age spectrum.
In addition to earning a diploma/certificate or associate degree through a practical nursing program, candidates must also receive training and certification in Basic Life Support (BLS), which includes learning how to recognize and address certain life-threatening situations such as heart attacks, strokes, and choking. BLS certification validates an individual’s ability to administer CPR to victims and use an AED (automated external defibrillator) when necessary.
What does the LPN licensing exam, the NCLEX-PN, involve?
Prior to practicing, practical and vocational nursing candidates must take and pass a licensing exam called the NCLEX-PN, which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). In order to qualify for this exam, candidates must first obtain an Authorization to Test (ATT). To receive an ATT, LPN/LVN candidates must submit an application to their state’s board of nursing, and subsequently register with Pearson VUE (the computer-based testing provider used by NCSBN). Eligibility requirements are determined by the board of nursing in one’s state of residence. Once an individual has received an ATT letter in the mail, he/she can schedule a test date before the expiration of the authorization.
According to NCSBN, the NCLEX-PN tests candidates in the following categories:
- Safe and Effective Care Environment—the provision of adequate, effective medical care and the maintenance of a safe working environment for both patients and health care providers.
- Coordinated Care—how to work with other health care providers to deliver effective patient treatment.
- Safety and Infection Control—protecting clients and health care providers from injury, infection, and other environmental and medical hazards.
- Health Promotion and Maintenance—the stages of human development and patients’ needs at each stage in order to optimize health and prevent medical conditions and complications. The role of lifestyle choices (such as exercise, nutrition, substance abuse, etc.) in the occurrence and advancement of various health conditions.
- Psychosocial Integrity—the support and promotion of patients’ social, psychological, and emotional well-being. Different social, mental, and emotional health issues—such as grief, chemical dependencies, stress, and abuse—and how to address them.
- Physiological Integrity—how to effectively care for patients in a medical setting, reduce patient risk and discomfort, and guide them in the management of health conditions. How to prepare for and address any patient complications arising from necessary medical treatments or procedures.
- Basic Care and Comfort—the provision of comfort, care, and daily living assistance to patients. Topics include patients’ personal hygiene, mobility, rest and sleep needs, and nutritional care.
- Pharmacological Therapies—the uses and effects of certain medications and the scenarios in which patients should receive certain pharmacological remedies. How to calculate proper dosages and anticipate possible effects of medications.
- Reduction of Risk Potential—how to detect and prevent medical complications through the use of diagnostic and laboratory tests. Understanding and anticipating complications that can arise from surgical, medical and therapeutic procedures.
- Physiological Adaptation—how to help patients care for and manage chronic, acute and/or life-threatening health conditions.
What are the key job responsibilities for licensed practical and vocational nurses?
LPNs/LVNs are responsible for monitoring patients and providing basic, essential bedside care. The duties primarily associated with these nurses include but are not limited to:
- Take and record patient vitals (such as blood pressure, temperature, height, weight, respiration, and pulse) and monitoring their medical status and progress.
- Tend to patients’ needs by dressing wounds and bedsores, administering douches and enemas, inserting catheters, providing pain relief through massage, and otherwise ensuring that patients are comfortable.
- Discuss patients’ medical concerns in person or over the phone, and report findings to RNs and physicians.
- Sterilize medical supplies and equipment using sterilizers, autoclaves and germicidal agents.
- Work with a team of other health care providers such as doctors and registered nurses in order to evaluate patients’ medical conditions and provide the optimal care.
- Collect patient samples such as saliva, blood, or urine, and conduct laboratory tests.
- Prepare and debrief patients prior to examinations, procedures, tests or treatment administration.
- Organize and use medical equipment, including oxygen machines, spirometers, and nebulizers.
As licensed practical/vocational nursing is regulated on a national and state level, some LPN/LVNs in certain regions are authorized to perform certain specialized tasks, such as administering IVs or certain medications, while other LPN/LVNs are not. To learn about specific nursing regulations in their region, individuals should check with the board of nursing in their state.
What tools and technology do LPNs and LVNs routinely use?
LPN/LVNs may make use of a wide variety of essential medical equipment, including:
- Oxygen supplying machines
- Thermometers, stethoscopes, spirometers and blood pressure monitors
- Bandages, wound cleaning agents
- Sterilizing equipment and agents
- Rehabilitation and stabilization equipment, including wheelchairs, crutches, and ankle/lap belts
- Patient medical records software
What is the typical job environment for licensed practical nurses and licensed vocational nurses?
LPN/LVNs can work in many different healthcare settings, including nursing homes and extended care facilities, hospitals, physicians’ offices, and private homes (bls.gov, Occupational Outlook Handbook). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 38 percent of the over 728,900 LPN/LVNs who were employed in May 2018 worked at nursing and residential care facilities, while 15 percent worked at general medical and surgical hospitals, and 13 percent worked in physicians’ offices (bls.gov, Occupational Outlook Handbook*).
LPN/LVNs generally work in clean, well-lit yet busy environments. Their work is challenging but potentially rewarding. LPN/LVNs interact with and positively impact the well-being of the people under their care. LPN/LVNs are typically more active than the average professional working in an office position. LPN/LVNs generally spend long hours on their feet, tending to patients. They might also be required to assist patients who have limited mobility, a task that may be physically demanding. In addition, this career can be emotionally stressful, because it involves working closely with individuals who are suffering from illness and/or injury. As hospitals and some medical facilities are often open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, many LPN/LVNs work during the evenings, weekends and holidays, and may at times be required to work overtime. What qualities are important for a LPN/LVN to possess?
LPNs and LVNs work closely with people who suffer from injury and illness. They must also keep track of a great deal of patient information and also perform routine medical tests. As a result, LPN careers typically require the following skills:
- Compassion—LPN/LVNs work daily with individuals afflicted with diseases, injuries and other health afflictions and who need continual assistance. As a result, LPN/LVNs must be caring and sympathetic towards the people whom they treat.
- Attention to Detail—LPN/LVNs must be able to obtain and remember important health care information, including the specific medical conditions and needs of multiple patients.
- Problem-Solving/Critical Thinking—LPN/LVNs work as part of a team to address patients’ complex medical issues. They must therefore have the ability to synthesize various forms of medical data in order to develop a sound treatment plan for each individual under their care.
- Communication—LPN/LVNs interact on a daily basis with patients, to whom they must convey treatment protocols and health-related advice. They also report to physicians and supervising nurses, with whom they develop patient health care plans. These regular interactions with client and health care providers necessitate sound communication and interpersonal skills.
- Listening—in order to gather specific and accurate information from patients and properly implement instructions from physicians and registered nurses, LPN/LVNs must have the ability to listen carefully and correctly process complex information and directions.
- Patience—LPN/LVNs must remain patient when faced with stressful situations.
- Stamina—the work of an LPN/LVN requires a large amount of time on one’s feet, or leaning over to examine or assist patients.
What associations are available to LPNs and LVNs, and how are they helpful?
LPN associations are available at both national and state levels. The two primary national LPN associations, the National Association of Practical Nurse Education and Service (NAPNES) and the National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses (NFLPN), provide their members with benefits such as discounts at certain merchants, continuing education courses, options for professional liability insurance, and networking opportunities. These associations also represent the interests of LPN/LVNs in the discussion of legislation and the development of new policies concerning LPN/LVNs. Finally, both NAPNES and NFLPN offer optional professional certifications for LPNs and LVNs to enhance their qualifications or specialize in a certain field.
Some states also have associations for licensed nurse practitioners. Examples of such associations include the Licensed Practical Nurses of Ohio, Inc. and the Missouri State Association of Licensed Practical Nurses, Inc., both of which provide their members with legislative representation, discounted continuing education, and discounts on certain healthcare services and products.
What types of professional certifications are available, and how are they useful?
Many professional certifications exist for different specializations within practical nursing. LPN certifications are different from LPN/LVN licenses in that licenses are provided by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and are necessary for employment. In contrast, professional certifications are typically optional credentials that can enable LPNs to gain skills or specialize in a certain aspect of medical care. Below are several of the certifications provided by established associations and organizations:
- The National Association of Practical Nurse Education and Service, Inc. (NAPNES) provides certification programs in pharmacology, IV therapy, long-term care, and rehabilitation therapy. In order to obtain one or more of these certifications, LPN/LVNs must pass a computer-based exam, submit an application, and pay a fee.
- The National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses (NFLPN) offers certifications in gerontology and IV therapy for LPN/LVNs through its Education Foundation; both certifications require the candidate to take an examination. The NFLPN also offers LPN/LVNs a Foot Care Certification option, which requires that candidates complete an online course module through the association.
What advancement opportunities are available to LPNs and LVNs?
After several years of experience, LPN/LVNs may be able to progress to supervisory positions, in which they oversee other LPN/LVNs. In addition, some LPN/LVNs advance to a different profession within nursing, such as a registered nurse position, by completing an LPN-to-RN education program. These programs are often available at the same institutions that provide LPN/LVN training programs: community colleges, technical and vocational schools, and some health care facilities. In addition, online LPN-to-RN programs are available at some schools and organizations.
Additional professional certifications can also enable LPN/LVNs to practice certain regulated tasks and thus enhance their qualifications. For example, becoming certified in IV treatments and/or long-term care may help LPN/LVNs become more competitive in the job market.
What is the employment outlook for licensed vocational and practical nurses?
Although conditions in your specific location may vary, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov, 2018-28 Employment Projections*), the employment of licensed vocational and practical nurses is projected to increase by 11 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028, a rate that is faster than the average for all occupations nationwide. The increasing population in America and the aging of the baby boomer generation is expected to lead to a growing need for nurses in hospitals, physicians’ private clinics, assisted-living facilities, and nursing homes. In addition, health problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer may continue to be significant problems in American society, and thus contribute to the ongoing demand for medical services. Furthermore, advancements in medical technology have enabled other healthcare settings, such as outpatient care facilities, to perform procedures and examinations previously limited to hospitals; this expansion of medical services through technology may lead to more LPN jobs in a number of different settings.
States with the highest employment levels of licensed vocational and practical nurses; wages may vary depending on where in the state you work:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2019
What is the average licensed practical nurse salary nationally?
According to bls.gov (Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2019*), the mean national LPN/LVN salary in May 2019 was $48,500 per year, or $23.32 per hour. LPN/LVNs generally work full time, and sometimes work overtime in particularly busy healthcare settings.
Percentile wage estimates for licensed practical and vocational nurses in May of 2019*:
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2019
Top-paying states for licensed vocational and practical nursing*:
Hourly mean wage
Annual mean wage
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2019
Licensed practical and vocational nurses’ primary job responsibilities involve assisting and caring for individuals with medical afflictions. Careers that are similar to this occupation share a common theme of assisting people with health issues and concerns.
- Occupational Therapist Assistants and Aides work under the supervision of occupational therapists to rehabilitate patients who have injuries, disabilities or illnesses and who need to reclaim their ability to complete daily living and working activities.
- Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides assist physical therapists in helping patients recover from illness, injury or surgery. Physical therapist assistants help patients regain mobility and physical strength while also managing the pain from their afflictions.
- Psychiatric Technicians and Aides provide therapeutic care and daily living assistance for people who have mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.
- Registered Nurses provide, plan and coordinate patient care in a variety of medical settings. They direct licensed vocational and practical nurses and work to educate the public on certain health issues and how to address them.
- Medical Assistants perform medical and administrative duties that enable a health care setting such as a hospital to run smoothly. They take can patients’ vitals, perform basic lab work, schedule patient appointments, and assist physicians with patient examinations and procedures.
- Surgical Technologists assist surgeons before and during surgical operations by preparing the operating rooms for procedures, organizing surgical equipment, and helping surgeons and nurses during procedures.
- Nursing Aides, Orderlies, and Attendants provide basic living assistance and daily care to individuals in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
*Salaries and employment projections in your specific area may vary from national or state data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Occupational Outlook Handbook: Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed June 2020, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm
- Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2019, https://www.bls.gov/oes/2019/may/oes292061.htm
- O*Net Online: Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2061.00
- National Association for Practical Nurse Education and Service, Inc., http://napnes.org/drupal-7.4/
- National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses, http://www.nflpn.org/
- National Council of State Boards of Nursing, https://www.ncsbn.org/index.htm
Kaitlin received her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English Literature. In addition to writing informative articles about education and careers, she aspires to be a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She enjoys tutoring students in writing.