Children should be preparing for work from the age of 11, with careers guidance, work experience and job observations as soon as they start secondary school, according to the European Union's new vocational education chief.
James Calleja, director of the EU's vocational training development centre, Cedefop, said students should see the labour market as an important "end result" of their schooling.
Not only should they have careers advice "as early as possible" in secondary school but they should also be given work experience and opportunities to observe other people at work, he added.
"We need to ensure easy access to labour market needs, to counsellors and guidance teachers in schools as early as possible," he told delegates at an international conference on skills and mobility. "It's very important that young people start seeing the labour market in secondary school."
Mick Carey, head of Careers Europe, which represents the UK guidance community in Europe, said 11 was the right age to start giving students careers advice, but warned it would be "crazy" to steer students on a path to employment so young.
"There's nothing wrong with young people starting to think at an early age about what they might want to do in future," he said. "I'm not saying every 11-year-old should be choosing what they want to do for the rest of their lives, or that they should be steered in a certain direction. That would be crazy.
"But it is useful to start them thinking in terms of what they enjoy, what kind of person they are, what are their strengths and weaknesses. They will need strong support and guidance throughout that process from trained professionals."
Europe is in the grip of a youth unemployment crisis, with joblessness among 15- to 24-year-olds currently at around 23 per cent. But in some countries hit hard by the global economic crisis, such as Greece and Spain, the figure is much higher.
In Greece, nearly 60 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds are out of work, and some experts predict that the figure could reach 70 per cent by early 2014.
Mr Calleja said the issue would come into particular focus next year because Greece's second city, Thessaloniki, has been named European Youth Capital for 2014. "We have a choice here," he said. "We can be technical and therefore act as kings. We can be prophets and predict but do nothing about it. Or we can be brokers and do something about our own predictions."
Mr Calleja, who took up his post in October, said that all students must gain qualifications and that there should be "no failures" in compulsory education. "We cannot tolerate people without any formal qualifications any more," he added.
He criticised the lack of communication between schools and businesses and urged them to work together to give more weight to vocational education and training.
"Vocational education should be given more importance by all social partners, by industry itself," he said. "We should make it more visible, more attractive to young people. It is a solution for unemployment. The dialogue with schools, with general education, should be more intensive.
"Vocational education, higher education and general education should speak to each other more frequently because people ought to acquire skills as early as possible in life. The earlier the intervention, the better. Skills and qualifications are a necessity for today's and tomorrow's labour markets."