By 2010, the average graduate will owe the banks £33,700. There's only one way to pay it back: get a job with a decent salary. So Katie Puckett asked 20 top construction employers how much they're offering

Katherine Bailey is mired in debt, but it's nothing to do with a gambling problem or a shopping addiction - it's simply the cost of doing a degree. By the time she had graduated from her four-year engineering course in 2003, she had borrowed £12,000 to cover her living expenses and £4000 to pay her tuition fees. Now 24 and working as an assistant project manager at M&E contractor Emcor, she knows she's going to be paying back her student loans for the rest of her 20s - at least. "It definitely won't be until after I'm 30. On my payslip, they take off £120 a month - that has a huge impact on my monthly outgoings."

But that's nothing compared with students starting their degrees in September - they are first intake to pay top-up fees. The maximum annual fee is £3000 and almost all universities are planning to charge the full amount. According to the Barclays Graduate Survey, the average graduate now owes £13,500 on leaving university. By 2010, that will climb to a terrifying £33,700. Those training to become architects will be among the hardest hit - the RIBA estimates that a Part II graduate will owe at least £36,000 after five years of study.

Graduates have to start paying back their loans a year after leaving university, although the exact amounts and the duration of the repayments will depend on their salary. It's not unlikely that the graduates of tomorrow will still be struggling under the weight of their student debts well into their 40s.

As Bailey has discovered, large loans can hamper your ability to borrow later in life, placing the already distant dream of buying a house further out of reach. "You would have thought people with our types of job would be able to get on the property ladder but when you go to see a mortgage adviser, they ask you straight out: ‘Do you have student loans, an overdraft, a credit card'," she says.

Of course, how quickly you can free yourself from the shackles of your debt depends on how much you're earning, so Building asked 20 of the largest contractors and consultants how much they'll be paying graduates this September, how fast that salary will rise, and what else they're doing to help (see attached table: Who are you hiring and how much do you pay?).

The good news is that employers are certainly aware of the debt pressures on their newest recruits. "Graduates coming out with more debt have pushed up starting salaries, and there will be more pressure further down the line. I don't think we'll have much choice but to respond," says David Burgess, human resources director at Hyder Consulting.

Our table shows that, by and large, graduates can expect their salaries to start in the low 20,000s. Your salary will depend on your degree and other experience. For example, Costain's basic pay package is £21,500 and it goes up by £500 for summer experience, for an industrial placement, for a relevant degree and for a masters in engineering (MEng). This makes the maximum sum available £23,500.

Salaries do tend to be within set parameters within organisations, so you may not have much luck asking one employer to match a higher offer from another. At EC Harris, Amy Preston, the cost consultant's graduate recruitment and development co-ordinator, confirms that it won't match offers, but promises annual pay reviews and a generous benefits scheme. "A lot of contractors pay higher salaries initially, but strong candidates can go up the pay scale rapidly," she says.

Where you'll be after five years depends on where you work in the country, what you're doing and, of course, how well you're doing it. Most companies promise salaries in the low 30,000s, but high achievers can do considerably better. Among the contractors, Bovis and Shepherd both dangle the carrot of £40,000, and at consultant Davis Langdon, it's not unheard of for graduates to be earning £56,000 by their late 20s.

Some companies also offer graduates a "golden hello" - a lump-sum payment (after tax) to help pay off a chunk of debt immediately or buy the clothes or car you might need for work, particularly if the job is in London. But beware, you might find your pay grows more slowly than your peers in later years to compensate.

Neil Shaw, senior human resources officer at engineer Arup, says it decided to introduce initial lump-sum payments when the first wave of graduates emerged with tuition fee debt four years ago. "We decided if we were going to do it, we should make it a reasonable sum," he says. Graduates with BScs or BEngs receive £2000; those with masters get £4000.

On the other hand, Kier Group this year ended its "golden hello" scheme and decided to increase the starting salary. "It seemed more meaningful," says Paul Sealy, Kier's head of group training and development. "A golden hello makes first-year salaries look high but you can end up earning less in the second year. We believe being able to show a good progression is more of a selling point."

How attractive a few thousand pounds might look against a debt of £30,000 remains to be seen. But there are also signs that the recruitment market is changing as potential students look for ways to avoid borrowing so much in the first place, or eschew the full-time university route altogether.

At the RICS, Rob Tovey, director of education and training, says he's seen a dramatic increase in the number of applications for accredited MScs, which shorten the route to high earnings as a surveyor. "People are doing the masters course straight off - they've got no time to hang around. We used to have 2500 applications for the bachelors degree and 400 for the masters. Now it's about 3000 for each. It used to be, you did your first degree with your heart and your second one with your head - when you'd starting thinking about employment. Now people can't afford that luxury; they can't afford two sets of debt."

Contractors and consultants alike report more demand from students for financial support during their courses. At Hyder, for example, Burgess says it is offering more sponsorships and bursaries, ranging from £500 to £1500 a year. "It's part of our corporate social responsibility - we're trying to help people not borrow so much money."

Part-time study options where you can "earn while you learn" and gain valuable experience towards your degree are also more popular and many of the firms surveyed said they were making more day-release places available.

But debt isn't the only shock to the system when you leave university and, however fat your pay packet, you don't want to be at work all the time. So to help you make the best choice of employer, we asked our respondents one last, very important, question: how many days' holiday do you get a year?