The UK is facing a severe skills shortage as poor education at schools and weak training for adults has left young workers unable to meet basic standards for reading and maths.
Almost every other developed country had had more success in building a skilled workforce, leaving the UK economy lagging behind, according to the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD).
According to its analysis, England and Northern Ireland ranked at the bottom four OECD countries for literacy and numeracy among 16-24 year olds, as employers invested less in skills than most other EU countries.
Analysts had called on the government to put training and skills at the centre of its industrial strategy, which is Theresa May's flagship programme to boost the economy over the years ahead.
''This is a sobering analysis of the state of skills in the UK. Our report should serve as a real wake-up call for the Government to break with the past two decades of failed skills policy and set the UK on a new course that delivers the right results for individuals, organisations and the economy as a whole,'' said the CIPD's skills adviser Lizzie Crowley.
''While more efforts are being made to reform education, it's clear that there needs to be a much greater emphasis on learning and development in the workplace.''
UK employers are investing less on training than other major economies and the gap has widened since 2005. In 2010, the cost per employee was €266 in the UK, whereas it was €511, almost double, across the EU, the CIPD found.
The UK was also fourth from the bottom on the EU league table for adult job-related training, and evidence showed a marked deterioration since 2007.
The CIPD had called on the government to boost funding for workplace training and put skills at the centre of industrial strategy.