Maytag’s departure left a small Iowa town’s economy reeling. Today, however, workers are building wind machines instead of washing machines, and validating studies about the enormous potential of green-collar jobs.
At the edge of a cornfield, inside a sprawling, low-slung brown building, a Midwestern town’s dying economy is humming back to life. Newton, Iowa, population 15,000, was best known as the headquarters of the Maytag Corporation. For 113 years the two names were practically interchangeable. Maytag employed 4,000 local workers at its peak and underwrote many of the town’s athletic and cultural organizations. Factory workers swam in a Maytag pool, sent their kids to college on Maytag scholarships, and spent their union wages at businesses clustered around a neoclassic courthouse. Once a year families descended on leafy Maytag Park to watch the crowning of the Maytag Queen—inside an amphitheater called the Maytag Bowl.
“The town ran around Maytag,” says Jay Barnes, a bandana-wearing 56-year-old with blue eyes and a gray ponytail. “It was the big fish in a small pond.” Barnes spent 24 years assembling washers, dryers, and parts for the company, and his wife cleaned executives’ houses. That was before Maytag was bought by its competitor Whirlpool in 2006. The new owner shut down the Newton factories and offices, eliminating the last 1,800 jobs. Unemployment in the county reached 9.5 percent, the state’s highest. Local businesses began to flounder. Barnes found himself jobless—and “terrified,” he says. He searched for work for six months and learned that “at my age, nobody really wants to hire you.”
But now Barnes builds something closer to his heart than washing machines: resin-and-fiberglass windmill blades, as tall as 10- to 15-story buildings and resembling giant elephant tusks redesigned by a Scandinavian minimalist. With its flat expanses, Iowa is ideally situated for wind power, and the state and Newton have aggressively pursued companies that assemble blades, turbines, and towers. “The blade industry is the future,” says Barnes, who works for TPI Composites. “With the greenhouse effect happening everywhere, only a fool doesn’t see it.”
As the nation’s industrial base contracts—791,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared in 2008 alone—a growing number of community leaders are hoping to replicate the experience of Newton, where three renewable-energy companies helped stabilize the town’s economy by hiring more than 400 “green-collar” employees. Advocates say that by pursuing environment-friendly policies, the United States will not only chart a more sustainable course, it will also put people back to work.
“The green economy is a more labor-intensive economy,” says Van Jones, founder of Oakland, California–based Green for All, a group that links sustainable environmental policy with the fight against poverty, and now the White House special adviser on green jobs. “You’re relying less on big, dirty, polluting machines and more on beautiful people.” Jones sees opportunities, in particular, in cities and towns like Newton. “Where you have a lot of industrially zoned land and the remnants of an industrial workforce, a great deal of the greening process is about building stuff,” he says. “People talk about energy independence. Well, it’s not energy independence if you go from importing your oil to importing your wind turbines.”
After eight years as political outsiders, green-job advocates like Jones finally have an ally in the White House. President Barack Obama kicked off his administration with a stimulus plan that includes almost $100 billion in environmentally beneficial spending and tax breaks. That was just the prelude: Obama’s 2010 budget echoes his campaign call for a 10-year, $150 billion investment in renewable energy, habitat restoration, advanced biofuels, wildlife migration corridors, energy efficiency, and plug-in cars. “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice is between prosperity and decline,” said President Obama when he visited the former Maytag plant in Newton on Earth Day. “We can remain the world’s leading importer of oil, or we can become the world’s leading exporter of clean energy.”
In his State of the Union address last February, Obama called on Congress to fund his program with a cap-and-trade system that reduces carbon emissions by auctioning off a shrinking number of pollution credits. He says the revenues from this plan will generate five million new jobs. “We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century,” Obama said during the address. “To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.”
A slew of new research shows that environment-minded strategies really do produce jobs—and that staying the fossil fuel course could eventually bankrupt us. But historically, environmental protection and job creation have been cast as rivals. Policy choices were either-or: Either pass the Kyoto climate treaty or preserve five million jobs. Reduce industrial emissions or keep factories stateside. Save northern spotted owls or save loggers. It’s an ingrained trope in the American political dialogue.
But the past few years have seen a paradigm shift as environmentalists have finally come off the defensive. Backed by new data, they argue that earth-friendly initiatives are the very boost our economy needs, generating jobs while forestalling the cataclysmic upheavals that global warming threatens to bring.