John Hillier, head of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, said employers who complained of low levels of numeracy and literacy among teenagers gaining general national vocational qualifications were expecting too much of the two-year course and should focus their criticism on schools.
Mr Hillier, told the conference in London organised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority: "Employers say young people are presenting themselves unable to handle words, numbers, or perform simple calculations, but the core skills of general national vocational qualifications will not remedy the gaps in basic education - they are not remedial maths and English lessons.
"Eleven years of compulsory maths lessons has produced a society which is number-averse and it is not something you are going to solve simply by two years of core skills achievement at GNVQ."
Sir Ron Dearing, who is conducting a review of post-16 education, spoke of his quest to retrieve the 100,000 teenagers leaving Britain's schools with no qualifications. "You have to catch alight somehow. If you give a lad a motorbike engine then he will want to read the manual and then he will get into issues of number. It means a very flexible approach," he said.
Sir Ron also wants to find ways to stretch high achievers, such as through the S-level qualification, whose status has fallen in recent years.
Dr Nick Tate, the Government's chief curriculum adviser, said while GCSE, A-level, GNVQ and NVQ, were succeeding in promoting achievement, there were problems which needed to be addressed.
Arrangements for the most and least able were inadequate, some post-16 courses were narrow and there was a recognised need for a bridge between GCSE and A-level.
During the conference, speakers from the UK and Europe offered analysis of the changing employment market and its impact on the way schools and colleges planned and worked.
John Capey, principal of Exeter College, and an NCVQ council member, told delegates greater collaboration between schools and colleges was vital if pupils were to get the very best out of the post-16 sector.
He is conducting an inquiry into the effectiveness of GNVQs and said: "The important question for everyone in the system is whether they see pupils as victims or targets or receivers of your provision, or do you see them as customers, as learners with individual rights which are paramount?" Richard Pring, professor of education at Oxford University, said the 14 to 19 curriculum framework needed to be flexible but unified.
"Any simple classification of young people into three types of learners will simply not do justice to the complexity of aspirations, learning styles or talents."