Employers wanted much more than literacy and numeracy in their recruits.
They wanted rounded people who could get on with others and relate to them, assess risks and take initiative, Mr Harper said.
From his own experience, the more activities pupils were involved in out of school, the better they did in exams.
Stephen McCafferty, Standard Life human resources director, said employers took for granted literacy and numeracy. "If we cannot, what are schools for?" he asked.
But employers were also looking for young people who could communicate, solve problems and press on, Mr McCafferty said.
Judith Gillespie, Scottish Parent Teacher Council development manager, believed a fundamental skill was functional literacy by the time pupils left primary. The rest of the curriculum was secondary to that, including popular Executive initiatives such as enterprise education.
Mr Harper said literacy remained a key area when there were 270,000 adults in Scotland with communication difficulties. For those with families, problems would be passed on. "There's a major job to be done on early intervention with families," the MSP said.
Katie Grant, author, academic and columnist, said standards of literacy appeared to be better 100 years ago. "What have we been doing in an affluent Scotland?" she asked.
She wanted to "stand up for the geeks" who concentrated on their studies and won the best grades.
* An edited transcript of the seminar proceedings will appear in The TESS on February 17.