This electrician oversees ‘brains’

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Vice President of Maintenance Brent Schaffer hold up the wild bird suet that is the final product at C&S Products. The factory is almost completely automated, Schaffer said, and working in maintenance means needed a clear understanding of electronics and industrial programming, not just mechanics.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a Sunday series focusing on the local workforce and manufacturing.

Brent Schaffer went into a career at a manufacturing plant, in part, because he wanted the challenge.

Schaffer joined C&S Products Co., a Fort Dodge-based firm, seeking a more industrial job after a few years doing residential electronics. Today, his duties include overseeing the computerized “brains” that keep all the conveyer belts at the fully-automated facility turning.

Now vice president of maintenance at C&S, Schaffer got his education at Iowa Central Community College’s two-year electrical program.

“From there I went to work at Fort Dodge Animal Health, and while working there I started my own business. I worked second shift, and during the day I had my own electrical business,” Schaffer said. “I did that for about four years.”

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Vice President of Manufacturing Brent Schaffer looks for a photo of himself in this large collage celebrating 30 years of C&S Products. Schaffer has been with the company about 12 years.

“The economy started to dive a little bit, and I kind of was getting burned out doing residential. I wanted more of a challenge. So I decided to look back into the industrial field. They had an opening here, and that’s how I ended up here.”

That was about 12 years ago. Schaffer started as an electrical manager, and worked his way up.

“When I first started, there were three employees I oversaw,” he said. “We did all the conduit wiring, PLC programming, electrical planning of the project, and just the day-to-day troubleshooting and minor repairs.”

The PLC is simply “the main brain that controls the conveyers and the sensors, and all the programming requirements on the electrical aspect of it,” Schaffer explained.

Having electrical knowledge isn’t 100 percent necessary, but it is beneficial for anyone working in maintenance, Schaffer said.

“A lot of our preventative maintenance program, where you grease and change oil, it doesn’t really require that background, but it does make that person more versatile,” he said.

And that versatility is growing more necessary all the time as manufacturing takes on more modern technologies.

“That’s definitely the direction manufacturing is going, is the need for skilled employees to be able to troubleshoot not only the mechanical, but also the electrical,” Schaffer said. “The department grew, so as we started to hire more maintenance staff on they had a lot more electrical background. Because the industry is growing as far as technology, being able to troubleshoot the electrical equipment … it seems like to have that electrical background is very important.”

These skills are important — and so is an ability to learn them while on the job.

Manufacturers use a range of computer software with different programming requirements, he said, so he didn’t become an expert in any one system while in college.

“You touch on it. They give you an experience of multiple different brands that are out there,” he said. “You get an entry-level experience into what a PLC is, what’s required in industry, so that once you get on the job and get more hands-on, that’s where you really learn.”

Schaffer is glad he went to a two-year school.

“It’s exactly what I need,” he said. “It’s local. What’s nice is that a person can go to a local college, get a two-year degree, and grow with a company in the area. Not having to look outside of Fort Dodge.”

Schaffer and his employer are both still heavily involved in Iowa Central.

“I’m on the electrical technologies advisory committee at Iowa Central,” he said.

And C&S offers a $2,000 scholarship for the electrical technologies program, he added. Students fill out a resume and the top five are interviewed. One or two students are picked to receive the money.

“That scholarship requires them to do an internship here, so we do work very closely with Iowa Central and their internship program,” Schaffer said.

“You get really good students, because you know they’re driven. They want this.”