Pupils should start vocational education at 13 - a year earlier than at present - to help overcome the UK's skills shortage, Tories say.
Damian Green says schools should value non-academic skills
Shadow education secretary Damian Green also promised more specialist technical schools and improved adult learning.
Almost a quarter of companies reported a skills shortage last year, according to government figures.
Mr Green said it was "sensible" to focus on this rather than increasing the number of university students.
He added: "Not only will this transform our poor performance on competitiveness, it will enhance the chances in life of those whose abilities are practical rather than academic.
"These are the children who are too often left behind in our school system, and who are treated much better in other European countries, who adopt the approach we are suggesting."
The CBI estimates that poor skills cost the British economy £10bn a year.
Mr Green said assessment of vocational courses should be carried out in the workplace wherever possible, to meet better the needs of business, with employers even becoming involved in assessment.
He promised to look at Germany's "dual system", where older students spend more time in the workplace.
Mr Green added: "The biggest long-term educational handicap this country faces is a lack of technical skills.
"We fall far behind our competitors in non-degree qualifications, and this is where any sensible government would concentrate, not in increasing the number of graduates."
The Conservative Party has already promised a voucher-style system, under which parents would be able to "spend" the amount allocated for each child on the state school of their choice.
It has also promised to abolish undergraduate tuition fees.
Universities say this would reduce student numbers. The government has set a target of getting "towards 50%" of young people into higher education by 2010.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis said: "We support an increase in vocational courses.
"But, with Conservative plans to cut 450,000 University places, they are pulling up the ladder for young people who want to continue with higher education after obtaining technical skills.
"This should not be a polarising 'either/ or' situation. Young people should be given the option of studying in vocational programmes and going to university."