State government moves up list of employers: Expansion of Benner Township correctional facility leads to increase; Penn State still No. 1

bmilazzo@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2014 

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Corrections officers walk through a fenced area of the State Correctional Institution at Benner Township during a dedication tour in April. SCI-Benner now employs about 500.

NABIL K. MARK — CDT file photo Buy Photo

It came as no surprise to some labor market analysts that the state government jumped to the No. 3 spot on the list of top employers in Centre County.

The move largely was due to the expansion of the State Correctional Institute at Benner Township last spring, said Steven Zellers, a labor market analyst for the state Department of Labor and Industry in Harrisburg with a concentration on the Centre County and central Pennsylvania economy.

Last year, state government ranked No. 4 and employed 1,140 in Centre County. This year, that jumped to 1,605, according to statistics Zellers provided.

Penn State and Mount Nittany Health remained No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among county employers.

State employment in Centre County jumped after two state prisons — SCI-Cresson in Cambria County and SCI-Greensburg in Westmoreland County — closed at the end of June. Workers were shifted to other state prisons, many to SCI-Benner and SCI-Rockview, said Sue Bensinger, deputy press secretary at the state Department of Corrections.

“They were offered positions anywhere in the state,” she said. “There was a freeze on positions open to the public so those prison employees could keep their jobs.”

The DOC operates 26 prisons and a training academy.

SCI-Cresson employed about 500, while SCI-Greensburg employed 370. Both prisons were considered Level 3 security or medium level security prisons — the same as both SCI-Benner and SCI-Rockview, Bensinger said.

SCI-Benner now employs about 500 — a jump from about 200 employees in the second quarter of last year, Zellers said.

Staffing at SCI-Rockview has increased from 650 to about 700 since the second quarter of 2013.

The Cresson and Greensburg closures came as a cost-saving mechanism, Bensinger said.

She said DOC Secretary John Wetzel and his staff looked at declining inmate populations statewide as well as aging facilities in need of costly repairs. The SCI-Benner was already underway to a point that couldn’t be stopped, so Cresson and Greensburg were designated for closure, Bensinger said.

Overall, education and health care continue to dominate Centre County employment. Penn State leads with nearly 26,000 employees at the University Park campus.

This year’s list also includes each of Centre County’s five school districts.

All of the leading health care providers are also on the list of top employers. Those include Mount Nittany, Geisinger Medical Group, Penn State Hershey Medical Center and HealthSouth Nittany Valley.

Hospitality, senior-living facilities and engineering companies remain fairly unchanged from last year’s levels.

The university continues to drive business — and jobs — in Centre County, Zellers said.

“Most of the year, there are about 45,000 additional people in the area,” he said. “Where you have the university, usually comes a need for hospitality and restaurants and more, which needs an engineer or construction company to build the facility and more.”

Zellers said Centre County leads the state with the lowest unemployment rate at 5.2 percent, as of the latest reports from November.

“It all piggybacks off each other, starting with the anchor that is Penn State,” Zellers said. “A need for one industry will call for the need of another, like a cycle.”

Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @ M11azzo.

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