Business leaders have warned that there are "clear weaknesses" in Scotland's education system.
Businesses are concerned at science's declining popularity
Umbrella group CBI Scotland claimed the performance of teachers, schools and councils varied across the country.
It said firms had to spend too much on "remedial education" as part of staff training and voiced concern at maths and science's declining popularity.
The Scottish Executive said assessments showed Scottish education compared well with other countries around the world.
CBI Scotland stressed the importance of education and skills development in its manifesto for next year's Holyrood election.
It said Scottish education could claim many achievements, but that global changes meant today's standards would not be good enough in five years' time.
The CBI argued that an education system of the "highest international quality" was needed to avoid a "spiral of decline in global competitive position".
In its manifesto, launched on Wednesday, it said: "We face this future with clear weaknesses in our current education system.
"The quality of performance of local authorities, schools and teachers varies across the country and we desperately need to achieve consistency based on the standards set by the best, not the average.
"Schools are failing to engage meaningfully with too many young people, leaving them far short of being 'work-ready', often with few or no qualifications at all and little to show for the years spent in the classroom.
"As a consequence, Scottish businesses have to invest an unacceptably high proportion of the £2bn they commit annually to training on what is effectively remedial education, rather than on sharpening their competitive edge."
While future business needs are hard to anticipate, the CBI said the skills required of new employees include literacy and numeracy, problem solving and communication and team-working.
"CBI Scotland is deeply concerned that the decline in popularity of science and maths in schools, and the subsequent fall in graduate numbers in these subjects, will leave Scotland short of the engineering, science and technology skills the economy will increasingly need," it adds.
"Such a shortfall will damage the prospects of some of Scotland's most important industries, such as electronics, renewable and nuclear energy, life sciences, aerospace and defence.
CBI Scotland said there were many positive achievements
"The Scottish Executive and Scottish business should encourage greater take up of science and mathematics in schools. Industry itself must continue to vigorously promote the exciting careers that these skills can offer."
CBI Scotland welcomed the executive's decision to separate Careers Scotland from Scottish Enterprise and called for a "root-and-branch" reform of careers advice.
The umbrella group also argues that there should be a review of the way learning in the workplace is supported, with financial help offered to those aged over 25.
Deputy Education Minister Robert Brown said standards in schools were already under constant supervision.
He told BBC Scotland that the focus had been on targeting literacy and numeracy, with extra English, maths and science teachers coming into the system.
And he stressed that Scotland's education system was among the best in the world.
"There are only three countries who significantly out-rank Scotland in terms of international performance on reading, writing and science," he said.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) reacted angrily to the CBI's claims.
Education spokesman Councillor Charlie Gray said: "Their inappropriate remarks are a slap in the face to every dedicated professional working in our education system.
"If we compared the position of Scottish education worldwide and the position of Scottish business worldwide I know who would come out on top.
"Scotland's education system is renowned throughout the world and in any assessment it compares well with other countries be they in Europe or worldwide."
He added that graduates were finding it increasingly difficult to find real jobs and meaningful employment in the business sector.
"Maybe the CBI should be looking closer to home," he added.