When it comes to pay, the sky's the limit if you have the right software skills. By Lynne Curry
At her office in London's Holborn, Hilary Gates, an IT consultant, is talking three-figure rates. This is not per week, or even per day, but per hour. The magic words she hopes to hear when computer contractors call her is "experience in SAP". SAP is a German business software package that covers everything from production to sales and marketing.

According to Ms Gates, of the human resources consultancy Alderwick Peachell, more than 100 of the top 500 companies in the UK have invested in SAP. The package has attained the "now" factor that comes from a fortuitous collision between hard promotion and a sudden spotlight that puts a particular skill in vogue.

Special supplements in the computer press have focused on SAP, while a debate on its benefits features in most issues. The result has been to send rates for people who know their way around the package through the roof. SAP experts are leading the field in a jobs market characterised by an overall shortage of skills.

"It's not uncommon for people with SAP skills to have increased their rates from pounds 30 an hour to pounds 100," says Ms Gates. "Those with experience of it can command three times their usual rate."

Annil Chandel, an SAP specialist with Computer Futures, says endorsement of SAP by the Big Six management consultancies has led to an a explosion in needs. While configuration experts are in fierce demand - they fix the installation stage - so are those who can provide technical support and system administration. "If users need these people, they're not likely to turn them away because of the money," Mr Chandel says. "They can almost literally command whatever they want. One candidate in this market increased his salary by 10 times over six months."

Companies that have implemented SAP in part of their operations include Royal Insurance, Proctor and Gamble, the Royal Mail, ICI, Siemens, the Post Office, Morgan Grenfell, British Sugar and Zeneca.

Tony Coombes, a director of Software Personnel, has clients offering pounds 1,500 a week for SAP personnel. "That is a good rate. The average we're paying contractors at the moment is something like pounds 950 a week."

While SAP provides the most extreme example, there is a general shortage of skills which, Mr Coombes says, has put up rates over the past 12 months by around 12 or 15 per cent. Other software packages where skills are scarce include Oracle, Ingres and C++.

Sudden shortages of expertise, which can cost companies extraordinary amounts of money, are prevalent in the IT world. Of all professions, IT specialists adapted earliest and fastest to the concept of temporary or contract working. While this removes the burden of keeping staff and training them, it puts companies much more directly at the mercy of the market. This exacerbates the difficulties inherent in an industry that brings out new software with startling regularity, updates it frequently and promotes it aggressively.

For contractors, gaining from changes in fashion and favour can be a matter of luck rather than judgement, depending on whether they have taken the right contracts. Although Richard Holway, an IT commentator, points out that 90 per cent of all money spent on IT goes on maintaining or running systems installed more than two years ago, having the right skill at the right time yields rich rewards.

Barry Roback, an accountant who specialises in helping computer freelancers, stresses that rates are not a single commodity. "They apply to certain skill sets. Although the demand for contractors is very strong, you would certainly find situations where prices are not rising."