It's been one of the most quoted economic statistics in Minnesota public life, cited by a chorus of business, education and political leaders since the recession.

By 2018, 70 percent of jobs in the state will require postsecondary education.

The projection gained currency at the State Capitol and bolsters the argument that Minnesota suffers from a skills gap that leaves employers unable to fill jobs because workers aren't prepared for them.

But five years after the claim surfaced in a report from Georgetown University, it isn't coming true.

The share of jobs that require training beyond high school in Minnesota is growing only moderately, and the share of open jobs today that require postsecondary education is actually shrinking.

"We've got a lot of ground to make up if we're going to get to 70 percent," said Steve Hine, a state labor market economist. "Anybody that's familiar with the dynamics of our labor markets ought to recognize that as being pure fantasy."

No one disputes that education, including professional certifications and associate degrees, pays dividends in the job market.

But low-skill occupations still dominate the job market in Minnesota and in the United States. Only 35 percent of jobs in Minnesota require more than a high school diploma and only 33 percent of jobs nationally, according to a Star Tribune analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.

The educational demands on workers are not increasing as dramatically as was predicted, and Minnesota's workforce is already technically better-educated than it needs to be for the jobs available, according to the federal government's system of classifying occupations and assigning education requirements to them.

And when it comes to positions companies are trying to fill, educational requirements have actually declined in the past five years. The latest evidence comes from the state Job Vacancy Survey, released in March. The data show that since 2009, the share of the state's openings that require more than a high school education has dropped from 44 percent to 38 percent.

"This is not to say that education isn't important," Hine said. "What I don't think is necessary is the consequence of this 70 percent nonsense, which was to say we just need to dramatically increase postsecondary education. We need to do it strategically."

Where it came from

The original stat came from a 2010 report by Anthony Carnevale at the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown.

The report argued that the recession was accelerating the shift to jobs requiring postsecondary education. It described a "growing mismatch between the jobs that will be created over the next decade and the education and training of our adult workers."

The nation would fall short by 3 million in preparing workers for the jobs of the future, the report said, and 64 percent of new hires in the United States and 70 percent in Minnesota would require postsecondary education of some type by 2018, well above the BLS portrayal of low-skill occupations.

In an interview, Carnevale said he believes the BLS undercounts the number of jobs that require an associate degree or higher because it only looks at entry-level requirements instead of acknowledging that most jobs have a range of educational requirements.

Also, the higher wages that people with higher education can demand call the BLS figures into question, Carnevale said. He estimates that the true needs of the national labor market fall somewhere between his estimate and that of the BLS.

"We're real clear that that 70 percent number needs to be more sophisticated than it is," Carnevale said, adding that he is "sort of comfortable but not sure" of the figure.

In Minnesota, the idea of a job market with increasingly sophisticated needs is alluring, in part because it is a point of pride for a state with a strong stable of employers and a high-quality workforce.

The 2018 projection showed up in reports published by the Itasca Project, led by a task force made up of executives at several of the Twin Cities' biggest companies, college and university presidents and the head of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. It's been cited by nonprofit organizations and repeated by education officials.

Hine, who found himself hearing the statistic in testimony at the Capitol more often than he liked, has analyzed the BLS education requirement data by comparing it with employer responses on what level of training their openings require. In contrast to Carnevale, he found the BLS classifications were accurate 75 percent of the time.

"I think that's good reason to be reasonably confident," he said.

To be sure, there are some discrepancies. For instance, Minnesota requires police officers to have an associate degree, which only a few other states require. Also, registered nurses, as Carnevale points out, often must have a bachelor's degree, and the BLS says nurses only need an associate degree.

So nobody's data are perfect, but Hine puts more stock in the federal government's numbers and makes that point in presentations constantly.

He spoke earlier this month to a group from the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce and pointed out again that he doesn't believe what he calls "the Georgetown number."

The point he makes is a delicate one. The 70 percent statistic is straightforward, and augurs something everyone agrees is valuable — more education. Hine has to walk a fine line when he pushes back against the statistic.

"Trying to explain that that's not the case takes a lot more nuance and a lot more data and a lot more explanation," he said.

A stat that's losing steam

Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, says focusing on precise numbers can be unproductive.

But data show that occupations requiring a bachelor's degree pay well above those needing just a high school diploma. And Pogemiller said that the companies most concerned about having an educated workforce are worried about skill shortages as baby boomers retire. Over the past five years, the share of jobs requiring postsecondary education in Minnesota rose from 30 percent to 35 percent.

But while higher-skill jobs are among the faster-growing occupations, low-skill occupations employ far more people and will continue to add more jobs in absolute terms.

Pogemiller said he now advocates for a more general endorsement of education as a smart career move, rather than citing the Georgetown statistic as a call to action.

"I would rather be optimistic that there are going to be opportunities," Pogemiller said. "And I would like to be educated so I can take advantage of whatever opportunities arise."

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz