University leavers are entering a job market where 25 per cent of graduate positions have disappeared, a study by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) states.
The latest results from the biannual survey of employers also reveal that graduates face increasingly stiff competition for work, with an average of 48 applications for every job.
The findings, which reflect the difficulties facing new graduates as a result of the recession, suggest that vacancies have plummeted by 24.9 per cent year on year and are approaching depths not seen since the early 1990s.
The survey is based on the responses of 226 graduate recruiters across 15 sectors.
It follows fears that the Class of 2009 face a “perfect storm” caused by the recession and record numbers of graduates entering a contracting job market.
This is compounded by the fact that many graduates are among the first cohort to leave higher education saddled with the extra debt incurred by tuition fees.
The AGR survey states that some industries have been hit harder than others by the recession.
Job vacancies in the engineering sector have fallen by 40 per cent, and the IT and banking sectors have also taken a beating.
The only sectors to report an increase in graduate positions are energy, water and utilities, where vacancies rose by about 7 per cent, the report says.
Employers were pessimistic about the prospects for a quick recovery, with 53.4 per cent expecting little change in the availability of graduate jobs in the near future.
The average graduate starting salary is frozen at £25,000.
Despite the gloomy findings, Carl Gilleard, chief executive of AGR, said students should not feel too disheartened because most of the businesses that participated in the survey were still recruiting graduates.
“Although they may have reduced the numbers, they haven’t stopped completely,” he added.
Mr Gilleard said that businesses had learnt from their mistakes during the last recession, when many of them froze their graduate-recruitment programmes entirely.
“They now recognise the importance of recruiting top talent, and the graduate talent pool is where they believe they can find it,” he said.
“You have to take the longer-term view. These are difficult times: however, people who are well educated have a better chance of surviving the recession and are in a better position to benefit from the upturn when it comes.”
Responding to the survey’s findings, David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, said: “These are undoubtedly tough times but a degree is a strong investment that stands graduates in good stead for a long and successful career.
“Research shows that businesses are recruiting through the downturn with growth in some areas, so graduates should remain positive about their long-term prospects.”