Minnesota's state government workforce is getting smaller.

A snapshot of the second quarter of 2011 compared to the same period in 2012 shows that Minnesota state government shed 863 positions -- more than 2 percent of the workforce -- according to the latest state data.

The Transportation Department alone lost 298 positions, leaving a workforce of 4,686 people. The employment and economic development agency shed 218 positions, leaving 1,570.

No agency experienced significant, numeric growth. The dentistry board, which oversees state dental practices, jumped six positions, bringing the total to 16.

It wasn't only big state agencies that experienced reductions. The constitutional offices, whose leaders are elected by Minnesota voters, have endured some of the steepest cuts.

Attorney General Lori Swanson's office was down 21 positions, leaving 282 full-time jobs. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office was down 17 positions, to 62.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's office, which was rebuilding after former Gov. Tim Pawlenty opted not to replace departing staff at the end of his term, added 11 staffers.

In all, the constitutional offices reduced staff by 7.4 percent.

The size of the state workforce has been a battle at the Capitol for decades. Democrats push for what they consider necessary staffing. Republicans prefer a leaner government.

Dayton's administration has spent the past two years taking a hard look at the inner workings of state government to find efficiencies and make it work better.

"Things ebb and flow," said John Pollard, spokesman for Minnesota Management and Budget.

He attributed the staffing reductions to budget cuts, but also the uncertainty of what was then a looming state government shutdown, which left administrators holding open vacancies. "It was not the time to address open positions," Pollard said.

The state's latest employment data show the numbers ticking up, but still down overall.

Much of the workforce trimming was driven by years of back-to-back budget deficits that forced cuts in nearly every corner of state government. At roughly 35,000 full-time employees, state government is the largest single employer in Minnesota, ahead of the federal government and the Mayo Foundation, the state's largest private employer.

Government experts warn that states like Minnesota may have trouble recruiting top talent as it looks to replace its aging workforce.

"With some governments in their fourth year of pay and hiring freezes, there are real challenges to retain, develop, or find the skilled staff needed for essential services," said Elizabeth Kellar, CEO of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. "The list of positions that are hard to fill has been growing, an indication that the competition for talent is heating up as the economy slowly recovers."