A manufacturer called Brenton LLC is urgently looking to fill lots of jobs, and at the top of its list is a good engineer to work with robotic controls technology.

Brenton has a modern, 200,000-square-foot facility north of Alexandria — near some fine central Minnesota fishing lakes. But this producer of automated packaging equipment will happily let someone work from anywhere. As for the pay, general manager Ryan Kirksey said this is the first time in his career he has approved a job without salary limits.

The company handed this name-your-own salary and work-where-you-want career opportunity to an executive search firm more than three months ago. The headhunter has yet to turn up a possibility.

It’s only a little bit easier for Brenton to fill other jobs, from assemblers and machinists on the shop floor to project managers and engineers in the office. Kirksey and his management team described staffing challenges so pressing that there’s even a pitched battle underway for promising interns.

There’s no reason to think Brenton’s experience is anything other than typical for the industry. And what an odd situation, amid growing concerns of automation leaving people without work. Here’s a company designing and building automation equipment to replace human labor with the big problem of not being able to hire enough human labor.

This explains why, on a recent Wednesday morning plant tour, teenagers were being led through the plant. These were students from Staples-Motley High School about an hour’s drive away, and this plant tour wasn’t a gracious act of community relations. It was a farsighted form of recruiting.

Brenton is just one of a few companies in the Alexandria area that design and produce similar equipment. They don’t usually compete for customers, Kirksey said, but they sure do compete for employees.

Brenton builds machines to grab shampoo bottles, medical syringes, snack trays and other products, pack them up in cartons, load them into cases and then onto a pallet and maybe even wrap the pallet. And all at a lickety-split pace, up to maybe 85 cases of shampoo bottles a minute.

Brenton got its start in the small Minnesota town of Carlos in 1987. It moved in 1991, with about 40 employees, to its current location about 9 miles northeast of downtown Alexandria and about two hours northwest of Minneapolis. The company now has about 300 employees, having tripled in size since 2011. The biggest challenge in getting from Minneapolis to a meeting there on time turned out to be finding an open space to park in its lot.

“We used to sell individual pieces of equipment, like a case packer or palletizer,” said Mike Grinager, its vice president of technology. “Go back to 2008, and we said we would do one system a year where we would put all the pieces together. Now we do mainly systems, where it’s a big automated system that might not package anything. It might get syringes into a tray that go to a sterilizer and then takes them back out and puts them back into a packaging line. So, it’s the automation that’s grown.”

Grinager said he’s unaware of a competitor that has adopted Brenton’s practice of building an entire system at the plant and then running it at full speed in front of a customer’s engineers, to gain confidence before it’s ever shipped to the customer site.

Brenton is a unit of Pro Mach Inc., a private equity-owned automation equipment company with about 2,600 employees. The parent company has identified Brenton as a companywide “center of excellence” for automation engineering. Of course, it’s no surprise to then hear Pro Mach has started staffing another engineering center in a different state because hiring is so difficult. Brenton had nearly 40 open positions at the time we met.

“I know you see this rhetoric that manufacturing is going away, but we don’t see it here, and we don’t see it any of our facilities,” said Marie Kirschbaum, Pro Mach senior human resources director. The top agenda item at every weekly management team meeting is employee recruiting.

Kirschbaum said all of the proven techniques to hire have been tried, from encouraging high school kids to think about entering fields like machining to paying bonuses to existing staffers who refer good candidates. As for pay, Kirschbaum allowed that Brenton had employees with a two-year degree earning nearly $90,000 a year.

Not having enough engineers, project managers and production staff to design and build everything customers want, and thus losing an order, is the main risk in the company’s business plan. As Kirksey put it, “we are creating our own competition by not having the people.”

Technical know-how in robotics is particularly scarce, as Brenton in rural Minnesota competes for talent with the likes of Ford Motor Co. and the Boeing Co. The company first started in robotics nearly 20 years ago, and on the plant tour Kirksey asked an employee to switch on a complex system for packing up and palletizing plastic food jars. It had a big yellow robot arm at its center.

The search for a robot controls engineer has turned out to be so frustrating that by now it must be funny story to tell at the bar. Asked if the search firm literally found no candidates, Kirksey replied: “Well they had a couple, but turned out they only saw a robot back in ’77.”

While that job is still posted, three current Brenton employees are about to start classes on robot controls. The policy of not hiring employees’ relatives has gone overboard, and managers have their eye on a current employee’s son as a potential robot programmer — some day. “He’s a senior in high school,” Grinager said.

This manufacturing worker shortage is a big part of Grinager’s explanation for why demand seems to be so strong for automation equipment, and why they don’t think of their technology as taking over work done by people. “Our customers tell us the same thing,” said Grinager. “They have a problem getting good people. So what do they do to get more production? They automate.”

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302