Careers help for adults is crucial to bridging the skills gap in the UK workforce in the next decade, said Chris Humphries, director-general of the qualifications awarding body City amp; Guilds.
"One of the worries I have about the entirely proper focus on the needs of young people resulting from Connexions is that the needs of adults will either get sidelined or lost," he told the Careers Services National Association annual conference.
"Our work in adult information and guidance has to be as broad-based as the work we do with young people. I think organisations like yours could start to talk about adults, how to engage and motivate adults who the system failed."
The National Skills Task Force has identified a need for two million more jobs by 2010. And with a demographic decline in the number of young people, these jobs will have to be filled by retraining adults.
A third of all adults of working age have no recognisable skill or qualification. And the biggest challenge lies in the ageing workforce in craft and technician occupations, he told conference delegates.
But he warned against evangelists" telling adults to learn. "If we're going to make a difference then the way we have to reach those people is by very local, very personal, very direct peer-group influence," he said.
He said all adults should have the chance to get a level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification through publicly-funded education. The goal for all young people should be level 3 (A-level), and the cut-off age for entitlement to free education and training should be raised from 19 to 25.
Greater workplace learning must be encouraged, particularly among small businesses, he said. Nearly a third of owner-managers have skills below level 2. And four in five of firms employing less than 50 people have nobody who understands the education and training system. "Our job here isn't to simply yell at small firms: 'You should be training more', but to actually give them the help, advice and support," said Mr Humphries.
John Harwood, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, told the conference of a need to change fundamental attitudes to learning.
"There are far too many adults and young people who feel that learning is not something which has much relevance in their lives, or if it does it's part of a system which they need to rebel against."