The UK’s top employers have increased graduate recruitment by 17.9 per cent this year, restoring more than half of the swingeing cuts in vacancies made over the past two years, according to research published on Wednesday.

But competition for jobs remains tough, with applications at unprecedented levels and 15 per cent higher than in 2008, according to the study of 100 big employers.

The survey by High Fliers Research, which analyses the graduate labour market on behalf of leading recruiters, said recruiters had already received 45 applications per vacancy this year. Many had filled all their entry-level vacancies or closed applications early.

Applications are high because graduates from previous years are competing alongside the “class of 2010” for this year’s vacancies.

Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers, said that although graduate recruitment had expanded in almost every leading industry and employment sector, some of the largest increases were in the City, where vacancies in investment banking had jumped by more than a third in the past year.

There were also more opportunities at high-street banks and almost 1,000 extra entry-level positions at the leading accounting and professional services firms.

Graduate salaries have increased significantly over the past six months as organisations compete to recruit the best candidates.

The average starting salary for graduates is now £29,000, 7.4 per cent higher than the £27,000 paid to last year’s intake.

The biggest rise in starting salaries has been at City investment banks, where graduate pay has jumped by more than 10 per cent to a high of £42,000, up from an average of £38,000 paid to new recruits in 2009.

Employers in 11 of 14 key industries and employment sectors are hiring more graduates this year. Just two sectors predicted fewer vacancies – public sector organisations, down 11 per cent, and law firms, down 5 per cent. Vacancies at consumer goods companies remained stable.

Overall, accountancy is taking on the most graduates, with almost 4,000 vacancies, followed by investment banking and the public sector at 2,200 each.

Looking ahead to 2011, half of employers believe they will hire a similar level of graduates as this year and a fifth believe their intake will increase. Almost a quarter warn of reductions, however.

In total, Britain’s top employers will have recruited 16,288 graduates to start work this year, compared with 13,817 graduate jobs that were available at the same organisations in 2009.

Mr Birchall said: “With a record number of students graduating from UK universities over the next few weeks, it’s great news that Britain’s best-known and most sought-after employers have stepped-up their graduate recruitment.

“But university leavers from the ‘class of 2010’ are still facing huge competition to land a good graduate job this summer . . . many organisations have filled all their places for 2010.”

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