More than half of Scotland's employers say school-leaver recruits are not well-prepared for the world of work - but three-quarters of college leavers are.
These are among the main conclusions of a major survey of 3,000 employers which reported this week. It was carried out by Futureskills Scotland, the labour market intelligence arm of Scottish Enterprise.
The Scottish Executive timed an announcement of an additional pound;42.7 million in European funds for skills and training to coincide with the report. The cash is set to benefit 376 projects, with pound;37.2 million to be spent in the coming year and pound;5.5 million up to 2006.
The Association of Scottish Colleges welcomed the study. Tom Kelly, its chief officer, said he hoped it would allow colleges "to engage more accurately with the labour market".
The findings about the products of the education system are by no means clear-cut. While more than half of employers said school-leavers were not well prepared for a job, opinions varied.
The private sector is "generally less likely than the public sector to state that new entrants are well prepared either in terms of core or technical skills and regardless of whether they were school, college or university leavers". This may suggest that the private sector is more demanding.
A similar dichotomy emerges in relation to small and large businesses, with the former less likely to rate leavers highly. The report says this may simply mean that bigger companies are more able to compete for the best people. But when employers were asked about school-leavers' technical skills, 54 per cent said they were well prepared, while core skills such as literacy, numeracy and problem-solving were less well-regarded.
While the study found a disparity between job-readiness in the core skills between college and university leavers (74 per cent and 82 per cent respectively), there was no such difference when it came to technical skills (both 77 per cent).
The results mean that employers' assessment of school-leavers' core skills is lower than in the 2002 survey when 60 per cent felt new recruits from secondary school were well prepared compared with just 48 per cent this year.
There was no change in the figure for FE leavers, but university leavers were better prepared with 82 per cent said to have good core skills against 75 per cent last year.
The report adds a health warning: "Employers are asked to make subjective assessments of the preparedness of new recruits and, as such, there may always be some fluctuations between years. The important and consistent trend to note is that employers report that each successive stage of education adds value in terms of core skills of recruits."
Mr Kelly reinforces this point but questions the reliability of "attitude" surveys. "If they are dissatisfied with the people they actually recruit, that may say more about their advertising and recruitment," he comments.
"But if they are asked about the quality of the people on offer, that is a very different question."
The study itself cautions against easy assumptions. "School-leavers will most likely be 16-18 years old while recruits from college or university could be four to six years older than that. It may be that the soft, core skills which FE and HE graduates have accrued is as the result of their being older and more mature rather than having been acquired as part of their continuing education."
But there is clear evidence from the survey that employers prefer their recruits to be older and, preferably, graduates. Four out of 10 employers who had taken on a university graduate in the past two to three years said they had better skills.
There was "generally low support" for the statement "where possible you prefer to employ young people under the age of 21" - 14 per cent agreed compared with 68 per cent who disagreed.
The survey goes on to debunk the myth that employers have an aversion to hiring older workers - just 12 per cent said they would have concerns about taking on people after the age of 50.