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Tech triumphCumberland County is king for computer system companies

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It's not a secret that technology has expanded in business and everyday lives over the past decade.

But in Central Pennsylvania, Cumberland County has fast become the apex for the companies that make that possible, showing a 95 percent growth rate in the past eight years.

Employment at those companies has grown by 66 percent between the second quarters of 2004 and 2012, according to statistics from the Pennsylvania Center for Workforce Information & Analysis.

Cumberland County's quarterly average of 78 companies and 1,172 employees in computer-system design is by far the largest in the region and continues to grow, according to the statistics.

Industry executives said security, health care information technology, government tech needs, mobile tech and cloud computing all have played an important role in that expansion.

"The technology industry, in general, has weathered the storm," said Bob Joyce, president of Versatile Systems Inc., which has its U.S. headquarters in Silver Spring Township and designs programs and systems for government, health care and retail sectors.

The growth of mobile technology such as smartphones and tablet computers can't be underestimated for all sorts of industries, but particularly restaurants and retailers, he said. Versatile has been designing systems that allow such businesses to interact and engage customers online.

"These allow the restaurant to bridge the gap between them and this nameless customer," he said. It's a way for companies to learn more about their customers and keep them on for a longer term.

Health care, government and security all fit together nicely to expand opportunities for companies, said Michael Bowers, vice president of information systems at Target Systems in Silver Spring Township.

Target has been around since 1994, designing software and IT systems for the Navy and more recently has expanded into health care to help hospitals and doctors' offices meet new electronic medical records standards. In both areas, controlled access and security are crucial components to protect defense secrets or patient information, Bowers said.

"Security has always been an issue, but now it's even more apparent," he said.

Because of the intricacy of security in government and health care, the company needs certified security professionals on its staff, Bowers said. That necessitates the hiring of more people.

In 2005, Target Systems had about 50 full-time employees, most of them local, and 36 full-time-equivalent consultants for nearly 90 total employees, according to Business Journal records. By 2008, it had 69 full-time employees and 41 consultants for a total of 110.

Those numbers scaled back some after the recession to 85 total employees, 74 of whom are full-time in 2012.

State government, military bases and federal government offices play a big role in the midstate tech sectors, but so do large companies that are revamping their internal computer systems, said Kelly Lewis, president and CEO of Harrisburg-based Allied Health Information Exchange Co. and the former president of the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania.

"Our largest industry sectors have been transforming their systems to meet today's market demands," Lewis said.

Hospitals, insurance companies, manufacturers and distribution companies all have been integrating more technology into their business. That creates work for small and medium-size tech companies, as well as the big ones.

Cumberland County has been a central focus of much of that activity, with large companies such as Gannett Fleming Inc. and its tech-heavy GeoDecisions subsidiary, IBM's office, and a growing logistics sector with tech-laden warehouses such as the Office Depot facility that uses robots.

With the exceptions of 2008 and 2009, when the number of companies hovered around 65, Cumberland County's growth has been consistent. Even during the recession, computer-system design firms hired more than 140 people between 2008 and 2009, according to state statistics.

Other counties in the midstate also saw strong growth rates for computer-system design. The number of employees in Lancaster County grew by 69 percent, and the number of companies in Dauphin County grew by 59 percent.

In both employment and number of companies, Cumberland County's growth rates crushed the state averages. By the second quarter of 2012, Pennsylvania had 3,277 computer-system design firms, or 55 percent more than in 2004. Statewide employment in those companies was 27,749, or 51 percent more.

"That's what's interesting," Lewis said. "Cumberland County really has a lot of economic activity going on."

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, distribution, transportation and logistics. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jimr@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JimTRyanCPBJ.

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