Employers cut graduate recruitment by a third last year, while graduate salaries rose by four times the rate of inflation.
A third fewer people were recruited onto graduate schemes in 1999, according to a survey of 229 organisations published this week by the Association of Graduate Recruitment.
"We anticipated a small reduction in vacancies, but the extent of the decline comes as a surprise," said Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the association.
The hardest-hit sectors were chemical industries, manufacturing, transport and communications and retail. Industry overall saw the numbers recruited onto graduate schemes fall by a half.
Recruitment in insurance was up 10 per cent. The only other sectors to increase the number of vacancies were construction, accountancy and legal services.
Richard Brown, chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, said: "We need more graduates in every walk of life so we can generate the wealth and international competitiveness on which a high quality of life for everyone will depend."
The median starting salary of a graduate recruit in 1999 was Pounds 17,500. More than one in four graduates starting work in 1999 earned at least Pounds 21,000.