Children would be able to leave school at the age of 14 to learn a trade under plans outlined in the Scottish Conservative manifesto.
The Tories are the first of the main parties to launch an election manifesto ahead of the ballot on 5 May.
As well as changing the school leaving age, the party's leader Annabel Goldie also backed a capped graduate fee.
She promised to deliver "common sense" policies that faced up to the need to cut the spending deficit.
Launching the manifesto at the Glasgow Science Centre, Ms Goldie said the policies would grow the economy and boost jobs.
She laid out plans for a variable student graduate fee, capped at £4,000 annually, although the party believes the charge would average at £3,600.
"I think people will respect us for being honest about the challenge, for telling the truth about the facts and being absolutely up-front about what this debate is really about," she said.
"This debate is about protecting Scottish universities, it's about keeping in place opportunities for our young people and it's about making sure our fine university reputation, which we've been so proud of in the past, is maintained for the future.
"We can do none of that without finding a new source of funding."
Ms Goldie said the school leaving-age proposal aimed to foster opportunities for children who were "wasting their time" in school.
She said: "Some children at 14 are disengaged from the school environment, they're not part of it. And they are just waiting until they get to 16 before they leave.
"That's a waste of their young lives, it's a wasted opportunity for Scotland.
"Let's identify if they can do something that they can pursue outside the school environment. And if they can, and they can do that at college or in an apprenticeship position, let's make it happen."
As well as detailing policy plans for the future, Ms Goldie also outlined the Conservatives' record in the Scottish Parliament.
She argued that her party had secured gains such as more police on the beat, help for families by backing a four-year council tax freeze, and support for businesses by pushing through cuts to rates.
Ms Goldie said those gains amounted to a £2bn package of benefits over the past four years.
But she insisted her party could deliver much more.
The leader argued that Scotland could not afford universal free prescriptions - which came into force on Friday.
Tory health reform proposals include reintroducing prescription charges at 2009 levels, which was £5 per item.
The party also want to offer more support to families by increasing the number of health visitors, and to pensioners through a cut in council tax allied to an overall freeze, which the party has pledged to support until 2013.
Ms Goldie stressed support for creating jobs through plans such as a business start-up fund, compulsory enterprise training at all colleges and universities, and a new dedicated cabinet-level minister for enterprise and jobs.
She said the manifesto was properly costed and "tells it like it is".