North Carolina’s health-care industry is facing a critical shortage of nurses — a shortage that’s projected to become increasingly worse.

By 2025, the state is expected to rank in the top five in the nation for the greatest gap in nurses versus anticipated need, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A 2014 study anticipates North Carolina will have 12,900 fewer registered nurses than will be needed in seven years and up to 8,000 fewer licensed practical nurses.

The gap, fueled by North Carolina’s soaring population growth and an expected surge in retirements among baby boomer-aged nurses, has broad implications for Charlotte’s two big health-care systems — if not addressed, it could ultimately drive up wages, limit expansion and, potentially, curtail options for care.

The systems, which operate hospitals and physician practices across the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, have not only recognized the impending crisis. Atrium Health and Novant Health are partnering to find solutions.

“We’re working diligently on a number of different fronts to try to improve our ability to recruit nurses,” says Michael Vaccaro, chief nursing officer for the greater Charlotte market at Winston-Salem-based Novant Health.

The ONE Charlotte Health Alliance, a collaboration of Novant, Atrium and Mecklenburg County, last month awarded scholarships to 10 local certified nursing assistants to help them complete a bachelor’s degree and become registered nurses. The first cohort included five CNAs from each health system based on income levels in their respective ZIP codes.

Atrium and Novant contributed $500,000 each to the program.

“As the largest employer in Charlotte, we continuously seek ways to provide teammates opportunities to advance economically and professionally,” says Jim Dunn, chief human resources officer at Atrium Health. “By partnering with Novant Health, we can make an even bigger impact in the Charlotte area. This scholarship program is an example of how our organizations are committed to investing in our teammates to improve financial well-being and support internal advancement.”

Vaccaro agrees, saying it came down to a question of how to tap into the internal talent already available and build another talent pipeline besides the residency and fellowship programs in place.

“We’ve got a significant population of team members who are CNAs and want to become nurses and have the passion and the drive,” adds Lindsay Kort, consumer strategy and products strategy execution manager at Novant.

The National Academy of Medicine, formerly the Institute of Medicine, a Washington-based health-care policy nonprofit, recommended in 2010 that 80% of nurses nationwide hold bachelor’s degrees, or be registered nurses, by 2020. RNs are trained in higher-level skill sets and can serve in a wider variety of capacities to help fill the gaps.

More than 99,000, or close to 53%, of nursing professionals in North Carolina are RNs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number is almost 56% in Charlotte, with nearly 21,000 RNs here, according to BLS.

Brittany Lawrence, a two-year CNA at Novant Health’s Presbyterian Medical Center, says the ONE Charlotte Health Alliance scholarship is likely the only way she would’ve been able to achieve a bachelor’s degree. The courseload for nursing school, coupled with a full-time or even part-time work schedule to cover costs of living, is difficult to balance, she adds.

The scholarship covers tuition and allows recipients to cut back on working hours without losing all pay.

“This program will give me the opportunity to learn new skills and advance my career while allowing me to have the schedule I need for school and to meet my personal and professional goals. I hope that I can pay it forward throughout my career,” says scholarship recipient Amanda Tahlmore, a CNA with Atrium Health.

Lawrence says she gained a valuable mentor through the program as well.

Each recipient is paired with a nurse mentor within the health system, says Daria Kring, senior director of clinical education at Novant. She says leaders also tried to pair scholars with nurses who previously worked as CNAs.

“They still have many stressors and barriers in their lives, and so we’ve not only provided them with the financial assistance and flexible scheduling, but we’ve tried to also surround them with a safety net of support,” Kring says.

Novant is also partnering with Charlotte-based B2 Talent Solutions to provide the chosen scholars with more career-coaching opportunities, Kort adds. She views this as a complement to the mentor program already in place. Kort says scholarship organizers will rely on this first cohort of recipients to give feedback on ways to improve the program.

Lawrence is set to be one of the program’s first success stories. She is now finishing up required courses at Central Piedmont Community College and is on schedule to complete coursework in December. She will then have to pass the NCLEX-RN exam, which tests application and analysis learned from nursing school, before receiving her new job title.

“The scholarship has been a huge game changer for me,” she says.

Other efforts to tackle the shortage are being led by academic institutions across the region.

Grace Buttriss, associate professor and BSN program chair at Queens University of Charlotte, says colleges are beginning to target students as early as middle school, allowing them to focus on the math and science classes needed in high school to set the stage for a nursing degree.

Queens representatives attend career fairs at high schools and look to recruit people already working in hospitals to continue their education, she says.

Christina Burns, nursing program chair at CPCC, says the college tries to remove as many barriers to entry as possible to attract more students. CPCC has multiple campuses, offers online courses and works to keep tuition low for students looking to pursue degrees. A high number of CPCC’s nursing students also go on to earn a bachelor’s degree through a partnership with UNC Charlotte, she says.

Burns notes most CPCC nursing graduates find jobs at Atrium and Novant.