Sir Ian Wood, the leading oil industrialist from Aberdeen, wants older school pupils to have the option to take National Certificates (NC) across Scotland.
Fifth and sixth-year pupils would then be given the opportunity to sit more advanced college certificates, such as an HND, alongside academic subjects.
The findings were published among the initial recommendations of Sir Ian's independent Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce.
The shift would come with additional as-yet unspecified costs in the first few years but would save money in the long term, he said.
"Right now, according to current figures, every morning in Scotland 77,000 young people wake up in the morning wondering whether society really needs them," Sir Ian said as his report was published. "That's a pretty motivating thought."
The proposals come one week after an Audit Scotland report warned that funding for colleges continues to fall.
The SNP's political opponents say that college budgets are being cut too far.
But Sir Ian's report states: "There could be some additional college costs for a good news reason. It's probable with the vocational pathway beginning in fourth-year school, there will be significantly more NC and HNC qualifications as well as more demand from young people for HND all of which would enrich Scotland's young workforce.
"The Scottish Government, local authorities and regional college boards should work together to reach an early agreement on the resourcing of transitional costs.
"If the increase in vocational qualifications and educational attainment results in better outcomes for students, these costs will be fully justified in terms of increased productivity and reduced costs relating to unemployment and its consequences."
Vocational training should be given far higher value to put it on a more equal footing with university qualifications, his report also recommends.
Some pupils are not suited to academic qualifications but "drift" through senior years because they are afraid there will be no jobs available, he said.
But it does not mean there should be a move away from the level of university education.
"I would just like to see the development alongside that," he said.
"Change in the colleges actually is an opportunity for some really national and international-class vocational colleges."
A focus on preparation for employment should be central to the new school curriculum and colleges and schools should tighten their working relationships across the regions of Scotland, he recommended.
All third-year pupils should have a "demonstrable understanding" of the process of finding, applying for and successfully getting and keeping a job, the report states.
It also calls for Modern Apprenticeships to be better aligned with the skills required to support economic growth.
Sir Ian reserved some criticism for his fellow business leaders for failing to help train and employ school leavers. The second report, due in spring, will focus on the issue.
"I think there were some pretty hard words with some businesses, in some areas, in trying to get them more engaged and also more disposed to employing young people," Sir Ian said.
The findings of the commission, which was set up by the Scottish Government, will now be considered by Youth Employment Minister Angela Constance and her colleagues.
She said: "Scotland continues to make good progress on youth employment and we remain better placed than the rest of the UK but we aspire to be amongst the best in Europe. Our discussions with employers and other EU countries have highlighted a clear link between vocational training and low youth unemployment which is where much of our efforts must now be focused."
Andy Willox, Scottish policy convener of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "For too long many of our decision makers haven't realised the importance of vocational education to the real economy. The FSB welcomes today's report because we understand a high-quality education and training system is vital to the country's success.
"Further, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, even amongst graduates, suggests we need to change our approach. Our members, and the wider small-business community, want to see a system which develops skilled individuals ready to deliver on the first day of work. We support the commission's call for the education system to deliver clearer paths to vocational careers.
"We must also see better links developed between schools, colleges and industry."
Lauren Paterson, senior policy executive at the Confederation of British Industry, said: "The default route of Highers then university is not suitable for all. Young people learn in different ways and have different interests. Although just over half of young people in Scotland go to university already, we still need to expand and promote apprenticeships to equip young people with the skills the economy needs."
The issue of college funding was raised at First Minister's Questions shortly after the report's publication.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson complained that college courses are being dropped while the Government is "raiding" the budget.
"The Scottish Conservatives have consistently warned that the SNP's approach towards the college sector risks excluding a generation from further education," she said.
Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur supported the recommendations.
"I particularly welcome the recommendation to integrate vocational qualifications within the senior phase of school education," he said.
"By working with industry and having an informed understanding of the skills required we can open doors for more young people. The North Sea skills gap, caused in part by an ageing workforce and a shortage of vocational skills, has been a clear lesson in the need for foresight in our structuring of education."