No. 4 company Agere Systems, the Allentown-based spinoff from Lucent Technologies, has had an interesting employment history in recent years. During the late 1990s and 2000, it couldn't hire workers fast enough, as the telecommunications industry boomed and demand soared for its semiconductors and fiber-optic system parts.

But over the past two years, it has been weathering a meltdown in the telecom business, and its employment has tanked.

In 2000, it employed more than 6,000 at its Allentown area facilities. Today, that number is 3,725. And with a phase-out of its local manufacturing, 1,500 more already-announced layoffs are yet to come. Its target employment figure is 2,300 locally.

PPL, the Allentown power company and owner of the lone skyscraper that dominates the city skyline, ranked No. 3 among the profit-making companies and fifth overall.

The Top 25 list contains mostly companies based in the Lehigh Valley, but maybe one surprising out-of-town employer ranks No. 6: Giant Food Stores, which employs 2,038 workers locally.

Giant, of Carlisle, Cumberland County, is a huge employer across Pennsylvania, ranking as the state's third-largest private employer, said spokesman Denny Hopkins.

Locally, Giant has 1,038 employees in its seven Lehigh County stores and 1,000 in its six Northampton County stores.

Another supermarket chain, Weis Markets of Sunbury, Northumberland County, was just off the list at No. 26, with 925 workers.

Four companies whose major local operations are call centers also made the list. Customers call these centers to do business over the phone. The operations are mostly for customer service and less for outbound telemarketing.

Life insurance company The Guardian is the largest, followed by T-Mobile, which has gone through a few name changes, previously existing as Voicestream Wireless and Omnipoint Communications. First Union National Bank, which will be renamed Wachovia this year, and Aetna health insurance, also have large call centers.

Not included in the top 25 are governments and school districts, which would account for four of the top 10 employers if they were included. Top public-sector employers include U.S. and state governments and county governments in Lehigh and Northampton, all of which employ 2,000 or more, according to records kept by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.

Some of the largest employers might not be readily recognizable, including No. 8 employer Wood Dining Services. Now owed by Sodexho Alliance of France, Wood provides cafeteria service for companies, colleges, hospitals and other institutions, including many locally. Its sales are more than $600 million a year.

Also, flying below most people's radar is Victaulic Co. of America, which makes pipe couplings at its plant in Forks Township, and Lutron Electronics of Coopersburg, which makes light-switch dimmers. Each employs about 1,200 workers. Sure Fit, known for making couch slip covers, employs 900 locally, and just missed making the largest-25 list.

Conspicuously absent from the list of large employers is Bethlehem Steel, once the undisputed top employer in the region. It counted more than 30,000 workers on its local payrolls after World War II. Today, it's in bankruptcy protection and employs 100 times fewer workers, a mere 300.

About the time steel was king locally, Mack Trucks of Allentown employed about 4,000. Now owned by Volvo, the company today employs half that at 2,000.

But nowadays, that's good enough to be ranked No. 7.

gregory.karp@mcall.com

610-820-6643