Delegates at the London conference, which was hosted by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), discussed finding employers to take half a million 16- to 19-year-old students on General National Vocational Qualification courses by 2000. This would be on top of the 650,000 work experience placements needed for 15-year-olds every year.
"If work experience is not to degenerate into a conveyor belt, some way must be found of managing this demand effectively," said Dr Nick Tate, SCAA chief executive.
The Rover Group and Business in the Community demanded a national strategy amid admissions by speakers and delegates alike that there was good and bad work experience - some schools were more concerned about getting the placements than they were about the quality of the work experience.
John Berkeley, education and careers manager for Rover Group, told the 70 delegates: "We need a single national strategy which will make crystal clear to everyone precisely what we are setting out to achieve so that they in turn can identify their distinctive interpretation." Work experience, he said, should not be a "bolt-on extra". It should be "a unifying experience" which did not fall into artificial academic, vocational and occupational tracks.
Ian Pearce, director of education for Business in the Community, said national guidance was problematic but essential.
"The unskilled face lifetime unemployment - the UK is slipping down the league tables for skills and it has never been more important that we give clear straightforward guidance that enables teachers, parents and employers to offer real learning opportunities and that we accredit and value the outcomes, " he said.
Mr Pearce said no consensus on accreditation for work experience had been reached, but there were several models on the market. Schools and employers might need to rely on qualitative evaluation in Records of Achievement until there was an integrated accreditation system and more work done on the development and assessment of core skills, he said.
Mr Pearce stressed that countries could now only educate for "employ-ability", not jobs - for example, 65 per cent of the products made by the successful US telecommunications company, Motorola, were not invented 10 years ago.
Work experience should include the ability to adapt to competition and change, he said.