The graduate job market is “better than feared”, according to new research but many university leavers are still having to take on menial jobs such as shelf stacking and operating check-outs.

Nearly 15% of those who graduated in 2011 are working in low-skilled jobs, with the figure rising for those who studied humanities subjects such as English and history. The number has soared by almost 3,500 compared to the previous year’s alumni.

Despite a weakening in the economy, coupled with further job losses from the cuts in public spending, the number of graduates employed has increased by 7,700 since 2009/10, although the actual proportion of graduates employed has decreased slightly. Overall, the employment rate stayed “relatively stable” at 61.8% compared to 62.2% last year.

The research, by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), revealed around one in 12 students were without work six months after graduating.

The study looked at destination figures for first degree graduates who left university in 2011, compared to those leaving in 2010, six months after they had completed their degree.

Engineering and computer science students fared the best, with both disciplines seeing an increase in employment compared to the previous year.

The typical range of earnings for graduates who had jobs six months after leaving university was between £18,000 and £24,000.

Charlie Ball, deputy research director at HECSU, said: “The figures show that even in difficult times, graduates can and do get jobs.”

The What Do Graduates Do study, which questioned nearly 250,000 graduates, revealed that while work is to be found around the UK, jobs are not spread out equally; in 2011, 21% of UK graduates were working in the capital, while just 3.8% were in the North East.

Around 11% had jobs in the North West, 7.5% in Yorkshire and the Humber, 6.1% in the East Midlands, 7.7% in the West Midlands, 7.2% in the East of England, 12.5% in the South East and 7.5% in the South West.

It also revealed that 4.7% were working in Wales, 7.8% in Scotland and 3% in Northern Ireland.

Of those working in London, many were employed around Westminster and the City and more than half of those working in these two areas six months after leaving university had jobs in business and finance.

Westminster and Camden, in north London, were the most popular areas in London for graduates to find work in marketing or sales.

Hertfordshire, Surrey, Oxfordshire and Manchester were also leading places for jobs in marketing and advertising.

Graduates were more likely to find science-based jobs in Oxfordshire or Cambridgeshire, while Aberdeen was the most common starting place for students going into engineering.

Charlie Ball added: “Many of the jobs created during the recession have been with smaller firms and therefore, when looking for vacancies, graduates should not just focus on large organisations but widen their search, taking advantage of local information, careers services and informal contacts.”

HECSU also found that health, education and social care jobs were found across the country, and that apart from the capital, arts-based work was common in Merseyside, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Manchester, Kent, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It found that some parts of the UK had relatively strong labour markets, with a range of jobs.

These were often bigger cities, such as Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh as well as London, and some “affluent local areas, largely in the south”, like Hampshire, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire.

The study said that it was clear from the figures that “jobs are not spread equally around the whole country, nor can everyone move to any part of the UK in search of a job”.

“There is often a perception that ‘all the jobs are in London’ (this is clearly not true – although the City of London has a higher percentage of graduates in graduate level jobs than anywhere else in the country), or that there are no jobs for graduates in other parts of the UK,” the survey added.