John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the system of voluntary contributions, had not worked since 1868 when his organisation was established.
He added that last year more than half the workforce had no training arranged by their employer. "Under present progress there is no way that the national target of 60 per cent of the workforce reaching national vocational qualification level 3 by the year 2000 will be achieved."
He wanted a "carrot-and-stick" approach with a possible reduction in employers' national insurance contributions if they encouraged learning. "If you train you gain; if you refuse you lose," he told a conference on Monday organised by the National Association for Adult Continuing Education in London to mark Adult Learners' Week. "We need to replace the hire-and-fire culture with a train-and-retain culture."
Chris Humphries, director of policy and strategy at the TEC national council, said employers must accept that they should pay for training and individuals should make a contribution. "And we must recognise that unemployed people and those lacking basic skills should not pay."
Both he and Mr Monks stressed the importance of trade unions bargaining with employers for skills training.
Mr Humphries also criticised the age restriction on learning entitlement asking why should it be confined to 16 to 18-year-olds. Instead people should be entitled to free education until they reached a certain level - NVQ level 3, for example - at 23, 37, or 49.
Business competence can only be achieved through individual competence, Dominic Cadbury, chairman of Cadbury Schweppes plc, told delegates. "Employers' interest in learning isn't some fashionable notion of philanthropy. It is hard-nosed and business-led. We now depend more than ever on employing competent, flexible, and highly-skilled individuals in order for our companies to compete in a global market-place."
Mr Cadbury, who also chairs the Confederation of British Industry education and training committee, added: "It is not too far-fetched to suggest that in the near future we won't refer to rich or poor countries, but knowledgeable and ignorant ones."
The lifetime learning message was supported by James Paice, the education and employment minister. "Learning pays for companies. Those who support it through Investors in People [the scheme to promote staff development] get bottom-line benefits. And people who have the learning habit are the most successful in today's competitive job market.
"Those who do not grasp the chance to learn will increasingly find that they are excluded - both socially and economically."
This was true not only of Britain, but in Europe generally. Jimmy Jamar, co-ordinator of the European Year of Lifelong Learning in Brussels, warned if the transition to an information society was not correctly mastered inequalities would deepen and new ones would be created.
Sir Christopher Ball, who recently launched the Campaign for Learning, said he was a "single issue fanatic for learning - the best modern analogy of the philosopher's stone". He wanted everyone to have a "personal lifetime learning plan".
Adult Learners' Week, now in its fifth year, has been so successful that it has been copied by Australia, Switzerland, South Africa and the Czech Republic. But that was not enough for Paul Belanger, director of the United Nations education body UNESCO's institute of education in Hamburg. He wanted to make the idea a worldwide event. "We need to globalise the dream to learn."