Sir Robert Smith, who chairs the Weir Group of engineering companies as well as the Scottish Executive's NEET advisory group, went on to tell a conference last week that Scotland's headline figure of 35,000 represented 13.5 per cent of the age group. "This is a disgrace," Sir Robert said.
But he also acknowledged that it was a complex phenomenon. "It is concentrated in certain regions. For some, it is a transitional stage - a gap year, a breather and, ultimately, a positive outcome.
"For others, it is a symptom of disadvantage and disengagement in earlier years and the prognosis is of a lifelong disengagement from actively participating in and benefiting from a prosperous society."
Sir Robert revealed that 37 per cent have qualifications below SVQ level 2, including 28 per cent who have no qualifications at all; 39 per cent have never worked; and 13 per cent suffer from long-term illness. But within the group, change could be rapid.
Of the 2003 NEETs, 44 per cent had moved out of the category within a year.
The vast majority of the rest were inactive, not unemployed: they included care leavers, carers, young parents, offenders, low attainers, persistent truants and those with health problems or drug or alcohol conditions.
"The problem is very complex and actually quite individual, so solutions must be flexible and adaptable," Sir Robert said.
John Mulgrew, former director of education in East Ayrshire and a member of the advisory group, told the conference that, as education minister, Jack McConnell had taken local authorities to task over their failure to meet the needs of looked-after children.
Many councils were now focusing on this group with some success. They had to ask themselves some sharp questions, however, about what they were doing to "head off" NEET pupils.
"We have got to think about partnership and increasing opportunities," Mr Mulgrew said.
HMIE would require councils, under its inspection of education authorities, to take a long, hard look at how they were responding to the very clear challenge set by this group of pupils, he warned.
Mr Mulgrew then went on to question whether school was the best environment for the NEET group. "What about the opening hours of school? What about the fact that schools are closed to young people over the school holidays? What about the curriculum? What about the blend between vocational education and real opportunities for young people to succeed?"
It was important that local authorities and others should share good practice on these issues, he said.