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Mark Phillips leads DEED

Mark Phillips, Commissioner, Department of Employment and Economic Development

Mark Phillips (’73) lives positively. It’s part of the job – and all in a day’s work for Phillips, this year’s recipient of the UMD Center for Economic Development Joel Labovitz Award for Entrepreneurial Vision.

Governor Mark Dayton appointed Phillips as the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in January 2011 to support the economic success of individuals, businesses, and communities by improving opportunities for growth. In partnership with business, industry, education and governmental organizations, DEED implements the state branding program “Positively Minnesota.”

Phillips believes his work in education and workforce development is particularly important during these economic times – and a positive attitude helps. “We’re doing innovative work that will have a positive impact Minnesota’s industry and business,” he said.

Phillips is no stranger to Minnesota’s business world. He grew up on the Iron Range and earned a Bachelor of Arts in business administration from UMD. Before being named to lead the state’s premier workforce and economic development enterprise, he was the business development director for Minneapolis-based Kraus-Anderson Construction Co. and directed community and economic development for the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB). Phillips was the director of corporate relations for Minnesota Power and vice president of Northeast Ventures Corp. in Duluth. He has also completed the UM’s Carlson School of Management Minnesota Executive Program.

The issues he faces at DEED are complex. Strengthening the alignment between higher education and the workforce is crucial. “DEED needs to look ahead to see where we will lose workers due to retirements and where new employers will need skilled replacement workers. Investing in education at all levels is one of the best economic development tools we have.”

Technology is playing a stronger role in nearly every job, and Phillips stresses that ongoing technology training is vital for entry-level as well as seasoned workers. “Our jobs have to adjust to a constantly changing world, so the way we teach technology has to be versatile enough to reach a diverse workforce,” he said.

However, fundamental skills transfer from job to job. “Everyone needs to learn how to communicate, and skills such as project management can transfer from a software project to a building project,” he said.

Public-private economic and workforce development partnerships are well underway. The state of Minnesota, the Greater Twin Cities United Way and the Minnesota Workforce Council Association with Joyce Foundation support are partnering to help some of the two million Minnesotans without a postsecondary credential get jobs. “The FastTRAC project coordinates occupational training, certificate programs, and degree programs across the state and matches industries’ needs for trained employees,” he said.

Another way DEED is leveraging its impact is by working with economic development organizations in Duluth, Rochester, the Metro Area and St. Cloud. “We're actively looking for collaborations and trying to create an appetite for new business development in Minnesota,” he said.

Phillips frames his overarching goal – “to help individuals and businesses thrive in Minnesota” – in context of Minnesota’s service sector, manufacturing, mining, timber industry, food and food products, computer manufacturing, and the scientific instrument industry.

He also credits UMD with helping him see the global picture.

“At UMD, I did an independent study on business communications to complete my degree, and now I’ve come full circle,” he said. That study was with John W. Boyer, labor and industrial relations professor and a nationally known mediator and negotiator. Boyer was Phillips’ adviser at the time.

Phillips met his wife, Patricia Pocrnich (’72 elementary education, ’90 Master of Education) at UMD. “I lived in a house with six guys, next to a house with six women. Patty was in a sorority, and she needed someone to go with her to a banquet at the old Duluth Athletic Club. When she asked me, she said it wasn't a date.” Date or not, the two were married in 1974 and have two grown children. Patricia is superintendent of School District 622 in North St. Paul, Maplewood, and Oakdale.

“We have a strong University of Minnesota family tradition,” said Phillips. “My mom and son went to the UM in the Twin Cities, Patty and I went to UMD, and my daughter Jessica went to the UM Morris campus.” Jessica Phillips served as a UM Regent from 1995–2001.

Phillips has stayed active with UMD throughout his career. He was a member of the UMD Corporate Partners and a founding board member for the Labovitz School of Business and Economics (LSBE) Center for Economic Development. He continues to serve on the Advisory Board to LSBE.

This article orginally appeared in the fall 2011 issue of the Bridge (Vol. 29, No. 1)

Written by Cheryl Reitan, August 2011.

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