Green-Collar Work Plan

Maytag’s departure left a small Iowa town reeling. Today, a revitalized workforce is fulfilling the potential of green-collar jobs.


| January-February 2010



Green Collar Work Plan

image by Mark Kegans / The New York Times

This article is part of a package on rethinking the economy and how to prosper in the wake of the recession. For more, read Get Rich Now , Empire of the Stunned , and We Are All Madoffs .

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 bandanna--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, and his wife cleaned executives’ houses. That was before Maytag was bought by Whirlpool in 2006. The new owner shut down the Newton factories and offices, eliminating the last 1,800 jobs. Unemployment in the county reached 9.9 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 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.

President Barack Obama kicked off his administration with a stimulus plan that includes almost $100 billion in environmen-tally 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 we face is between prosperity and decline,” President Obama said 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.”