Andrew Cubie, former chairman of the CBI Scotland, said the debate about what education and business need from each other had been "tortured", partly because business is often unclear what its needs are.
But Mr Cubie said that, despite the revolution in information technology, the basic expectation remained that pupils should be literate and numerate, underpinned by a sense of reliance and an enquiring mind.
The list from Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, was broadly similar. "Employers expect young people to know how to get on with others in a businesslike way; they expect them to understand information and communications technology; they expect them to be proactive in coming up with solutions to problems and to accept responsibility for them."
Employers also want youngsters to show "adaptability and confidence - something that was almost beaten out of most of us at school", Mr Galbraith said.
Mr Cubie, the Edinburgh lawyer who chaired the inquiry into student finance, made it clear he did not regard the relationship as "a one-way street".
He added: "It is not just a matter of what business wants from education but what business can contribute to education. There are large chunks of the business community that don't get engaged."
On the other hand, Mr Galbraith said, some schools are not as enthusiastic as others about being involved in education for work. "They may not recognise the critical role which enterprising behaviours and attitudes are likely to play in the labour market of tomorrow," he said, echoing remarks by Henry McLeish, Lifelong Learning Minister, who urged schools to show more commitment to work and enterprise activities during the launch of HMI's report on Education for Work.
Bob Currie of the National Cetre: Education for Work and Enterprise said the key challenge was to move on from work-related experiences which are enjoyed by some pupils as a series of programmes to an entitlement for all pupils, a view endorsed in HMI's report.
But Bill Ball, head of Cramond primary, pointed out that while teachers would have to be on board: his staff development budget was just pound;1,500 a year. "If a business decided on a change of direction, money would be found to do it," Mr Ball observed.
The conference, organised by the CBI and Edinburgh City Council, also heard calls for a new approach to the nature of learning. Mr Galbraith himself cited, without comment, the report from the Arthur Andersen consultancy which stressed that the order of educational priorities ought to be "attitudes first, followed by skills and then knowledge".
This is the reverse of the traditional approach by schools, Lesley James, head of education at the Royal Society of Arts, pointed out. The society's Opening Minds report, published last June, suggested schools should concentrate on five key "competences" - learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information.
These could be delivered through subjects but assessment would check on whether the competences had been mastered.
Bill Gatherer, former chief education adviser in Lothian Region, warned, however, that those in business and the universities who demanded formal qualifications as the measure of talent and skill would have to be challenged if any alternative approaches were to be implemented.
The conference was addressed by teachers from Education by Design, a United States partnership between education and business. Their approaches, outlined in The TES Scotland two weeks ago, embody much of the project-based and work-related activities found in many Scottish schools, integrated into the curriculum.