It seems a degree is no longer a guarantee of a job: one in five graduates left university without a job in 2010, according to the Office for National Statistics. More worryingly, the unemployment rate among new graduates is increasing more rapidly than for the UK workforce as a whole.
Against this background, competition for jobs is fierce. In 2010, High Fliers Research reported an average of 45 applications for every graduate vacancy and it predicts that this figure will climb even higher this year.
These statistics make for grim reading, but what are graduates' options and what are the main challenges they face? And how can you help your offspring if they're about to leave the safe haven of university life?
Polish your CV
Finding that first job will be many graduates' priority but, with competition so tough, a well-turned out CV and polished interview technique are essential.
Amanda Haig, HR manager for Allianz Insurance, explains what she looks for when she recruits: "The best graduate CVs are clear, concise and include only the most relevant information. The way in which candidates conduct themselves throughout the application process is also important - and we find telephone conversations, emails and covering letters can reveal a lot about the applicant too."
Finding a way to put some experience on your CV will help you stand out. Jon Madge, editor of careers advice magazine and website Real World Magazine (realworldmagazine.com), explains: "Employers have their pick of graduates. If you've done some voluntary work it will help, especially if it's in an area that is relevant to your degree."
You should also register with graduate job sites like prospects.ac.uk, graduate-jobs.com and targetjobs.co.uk to find out about new jobs and graduate training schemes, and also be open to indirect career routes; for example jobs in sub-editing could be a good way of getting into journalism.
Find an internship
Employers are increasingly using internships to cherry-pick candidates. There are thousands of these available, ranging from 'open days' to year-long placements.
Oliver Sidwell, a founder of ratemyplacement.co.uk, says: "An internship can look very good on your CV and many employers will pick the majority of their graduate recruits from their interns."
This is what happened to Kimberley Low, 21, from Hinckley in Leicestershire. Now in her third year of law at Oxford University, she had an internship with Linklaters at the end of the second year. As well as being paid £350 a week during the placement, Kimberley also bagged a training contract with the company.
Details of internships can be found through university careers services or by trawling the internet, with sites such as ratemyplacement.co.uk and realworldmagazine.com full of the latest opportunities.
Graduate internships are also available through the Department for Business Innovation & Skills website, graduatetalentpool.direct.gov.uk. Once you register you can specify what areas you're interested in and you'll get details of relevant internships.
Kimberley says: "I applied as soon as details of internships became available at university and spent time making sure my CV and applications really stood out. The application process was pretty tough, with thousands of applicants being whittled down to 30 places. I would definitely recommend it, though. It's a great way to compare different companies and I learnt so much about the legal profession from the experience."
Kimberley's tips for anyone looking to secure an internship are to prepare rigorously by finding out as much as possible about the organisation; show you're well-rounded by including plenty of extracurricular and work experience on your application form; and be enthusiastic.
"Apply early too," she adds. "Although the deadline may be months away, some firms, especially the smaller ones, will have filled their internships long before this date."
But not every internship is as positive as Kimberley's, and horror stories abound of weeks spent making tea or filing for low or even no pay. This is particularly the case in competitive sectors such as the media and architecture.
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, says: "Staying positive is vital, particularly when undertaking internships, but it's important to ensure you're gaining useful experience and skills and not being exploited."
Labour MP Luciana Berger recently revealed that interns were working for free for up to nine months in many of London's leading museums and art galleries.
Among the institutions that expected graduates to work for nothing were the National Gallery, which had nine unpaid interns working for between three weeks and nine months; the Natural History Museum, which offered expenses-only internships for three to five days a week for up to three months; and the British Museum, which had 24 unpaid interns in its conservation and scientific research department.
Berger says: "These figures are merely the tip of the iceberg. Interning for long periods for free is a hidden scandal. No one should have to work for free. I'm calling for all employers to end this unfair practice."
The other problem with internships is that graduates who have parents who either can't afford or don't want to support their children through unpaid work could find themselves at a disadvantage, unable to commit themselves to working for free for any length of time.
However, while it's worthwhile getting experience to add to your CV, it's unlikely that a prospective employer will think any differently of someone who has had one month's experience compared with someone with two. Also, working with smaller firms can be more hands-on than gaining experience with a big name.
With the UK job market so tough, leaving the country until it recovers could be another option. But, according to Terri Sturman, travel writer, overseas employment expert and author of the HasAnyoneBeenTo blog, you need to be careful if you want your time abroad to count with employers.
"Employers won't be impressed if you've just been swanning around enjoying yourself. That said, working abroad looks good on your CV and it doesn't even have to be relevant to your chosen career. It shows initiative, commitment and an ability to learn new skills," she says.
All sorts of job opportunities lie abroad. As an example, Sturman has taught English in Thailand, written a guidebook in Bolivia and helped a family run a guesthouse in Greece.
It can be financially beneficial too. Working in the guesthouse, Sturman earned enough to put a deposit down on a house. "Not every job will pay, but you'll get perks such as accommodation and food. And there's always the experience," she says. Sturman's favourite sites for overseas work are workaway.info and volunteersouthamerica.net.
But although there are different avenues for new graduates to explore, the tough conditions in the job market have potentially wider social implications too. As the cost of a university education is ratcheted up, more A-level students will increasingly question whether it's worth going to college at all, with only those from privileged backgrounds prepared to take on the debt it entails.
Dealing with debt
Graduating with debt isn't much fun but it's a whole lot worse when poor job prospects mean repaying the money is a remote goal.
As a parent, it can be difficult to know what, if anything, to do to help. Philip Pearson, partner at P&P Invest, believes it's important to let your child take at least some responsibility for their debt. "Even if you intend to clear their debts, make sure they appreciate this. If they think it'll be taken care of, it takes away the incentive to look after their finances themselves," he says.
Taking out a graduate loan may be an option, although they aren't necessarily cheap. For instance, while the rate from HSBC is a competitive 7.5%, Barclays is 12.9% and NatWest 16.5%.
You should also check the terms on any student bank accounts. Aaron Porter, National Union of Students president, explains: "Double-check whether the overdraft facility will remain after graduation, and at what level, to ensure there aren't any unnecessary charges and penalties."
Doing your own thing
Setting up your business isn't easy but there are organisations geared towards helping young would-be entrepreneurs, such as Bright Ideas Trust, the Prince's Trust and young-enterprise.org.uk.
University friends Nick Harriman, 26, and Tom Cohn, 25, both from north London, set up kigu.co.uk in September 2009, a year after they graduated, with the help of a £1,500 investment from Bright Ideas Trust. Kigu is an importer of Japanese animal costumes.
"We spent a year doing awful jobs, such as delivering pizzas, to get some money together and received further help from the Bright Ideas Trust," Nick says. "We really valued the professional services of a business adviser, solicitor and accountant."
Tom and Nick now have a taste for further business ventures. "It's great fun seeing Kigu grow, but we want to look at other opportunities too," he adds. "We'd like to get into property once we've made enough money."