When 1,800 workers lost their jobs after a Maytag appliance factory and headquarters closed last year in Newton, Iowa, a wind turbine blade company saw opportunity -- an available, skilled workforce in the middle of one of America's hardiest wind energy production regions.
TPI Composites Inc. is building a plant there as the energy industry aims for a cleaner, more sustainable future. With proper incentives, thousands of "green-collar jobs" could be created, from ethanol production to wind turbines and solar panels, and all the maintenance and construction to support them, industry officials said.
TPI used to build boats, but switched to turbines in 2001 for the "major growth opportunity," said Steve Lockard, CEO of the Phoenix, Ariz.-based company. The idea, he said, is to "transform the workforce away from the Maytag-type jobs of the past into jobs that can withstand the test of time going forward."
However, advocates and executives say training is key to making sure the industry has enough skilled workers to make it into a real economic engine, and are pushing for more lucrative tax breaks, much like oil companies already receive, to make it profitable.
With the economy sputtering, even presidential candidates are getting on board. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say they would funnel federal money into job-training programs for workers to become skilled in green industries. The Republican candidates, too, have plans they say will stimulate the clean energy sector.
That doesn't matter to people such as Robert Hughes, who worked at Maytag for 21 years. He's been out of work since October. At 55, he was making $22 an hour on the assembly line.
TPI promised to create 500 jobs within three years at a base pay of $12.25 an hour, not bad for new workers, but quite a cut for Mr. Hughes.
"I'm encouraging my grandkids to go to college and further their education and get into something other than manufacturing, because it doesn't really hold a promising future," he said.
Overall, however, the unions see "an opportunity to restore some of the 3 million jobs in manufacturing we've lost in the last seven years," said Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council.
But while wind and solar have been seeing steady increases in production and investment, federal tax breaks set to expire at the end of the year and an anticipated shortage of skilled workers could stall growth, experts say.
"Already companies that have invested millions of dollars in this industry are getting nervous," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association.
An energy bill President Bush signed last year left out tax breaks for clean energy industries. The bill does authorize $125 million for green-collar job training programs, but the industry says that isn't enough.
The federal government must not only extend the tax credits, but provide more money for training workers, said George Sterzinger, executive director of the Washington-based Renewable Energy Policy Project.
If not, manufacturing will go overseas and the jobs will be lost, he said.
"You look at a wind turbine. It's got a whole bunch of parts. Somebody makes the blades, somebody makes the tower, somebody makes the gear boxes, the electronic controls," Mr. Sterzinger said. "Those parts can come from China, India -- or from Buffalo."
Mr. Swisher estimates that by 2030, nearly a half-million jobs could be created in the wind industry, in manufacturing, construction and operation.
Last year the solar industry set a record with 314 megawatts of new solar capacity installed in the U.S., said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. That's enough to power about 80,000 homes, he said.
The market was worth just about $200 million five years ago.
Last year, it topped $2 billion, Mr. Resch said.