When 1,800 workers lost their jobs after a Maytag appliance factory and headquarters closed last year in the small town of 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, chief executive of the Phoenix 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."
But advocates and executives say training is key to making sure the industry can become a real economic engine, and they are pushing for more tax breaks, much like oil companies already receive, to make it profitable.
For people like Robert Hughes, who worked at Maytag for 21 years, none of it really matters. He's been out of work since October. At 55, he was making $22 an hour on the assembly line, and worries that new industries replacing the old jobs simply means he will become a relic.
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 Hughes, who says he might apply for work there anyway.
"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, 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 power 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 future 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 White House said it needs to focus on programs that expire this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The bill does authorize $125 million for green-collar job training programs, but the industry says that isn't enough.
They fear manufacturing will go overseas and the jobs will be lost, said George Sterzinger, executive director of the Washington-based Renewable Energy Policy Project. It makes no sense, he added, to wean America off its dependence on foreign oil only to become dependent on other countries for products in sustainable energy production.
"You look at a wind turbine. . . . Somebody makes the blades, somebody makes the tower, somebody makes the gear boxes, the electronic controls," he said. "Those parts can come from China, India - or from Buffalo."
The wind energy industry currently employs about 45,000 people in the United States and had $9 billion worth of investment last year, a 45 percent increase from 2006, Swisher said.