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Ask Bob Fowler about the skills gap in Holyoke and the first thing he'll tell you is that it's not a matter of people having any less of a work ethic now than when the "Paper City" first built up its blocks of factories along the Connecticut River in the 19th century.

It's technology.

As chairman and chief executive officer of Hampden Papers Inc., Mr. Fowler employs 160 people to create specialty paper products - a tradition handed down from his great grandfather, George Fowler, who cofounded the company in 1880. (The present-day Fowler, white beard and all, bears a striking resemblance to the man in the black-and-white photo on the wall.)

For new hires, a higher bar

But the changes inside the factory verge on revolutionary. To illustrate, Fowler displays a scuffed-up square flint stone with beveled edges - heavy, but small enough to hold in one palm. For nearly a century, machines swung these stones over the paper as it rolled through, buffing a wax coating until it shined.

The machines moved slowly enough that an operator could monitor four or five at once. It was almost as simple as pushing a green button at the beginning of the shift and a red button at the end.

When new immigrants arrived, "you could find someone [on staff] who spoke their language and give them instructions for their entire career in about an hour," Fowler says. "I don't mean to demean it, because learning a machine like this was really an art. But you didn't need complex mathematical and linguistic skills to make a union wage and put your kids through college."

The company "got out of the stone age" in 1973, he says, installing faster and more complicated machines. Employees needed more training, and their mistakes got costlier. If something is set up improperly, "you can make enough bad paper in an eight-hour shift to stretch from here to Boston and back again," Fowler says.

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