A survey of 75 nursing colleges shows that many young nurses are forced to find work in the private sector, accept short- term contracts, or rely on locum work rather than start a career in the NHS. More than 40 per cent of colleges said that half or more of their students could not find permanent jobs in their region after completing training.
College principals blame the crisis on trust hospitals - which want to increase their unqualified staff because of budget concerns - together with widespread uncertainty about the future as a result of health service changes.
The recession is contributing to the problem because there has been a fall in the turnover of nursing staff around the country. The worst-hit areas are Scotland, Northern Ireland, North West Thames, South East Thames, and West Midlands.
The survey, carried out for the Radio 4 Today programme, marks a shift in nurses' fortunes, from the shortages of the late 1980s to the current surplus.
The Government initiated a major recruitment campaign in 1989 to attract trained staff back to work. But in the two years to 1991, 8,500 nursing jobs disappeared.
The Royal College of Nursing launched a campaign this year to resist cuts in nursing posts, and to halt the trend in replacing nurses with care assistants.
Christine Hancock, general secretary of the college, said that managers in the new market-led health service 'undervalue' nurses. 'If units and trusts want to survive to win contracts for quality patient care, then the key factor must be the provision of qualified staff,' she said.