This year, IT specialists are selling their services to the highest bidder.
Millennium madness, currency confusion and a frenzy over finance. Yes, 1997 is already shaping up as a great year for systems folk. Plans and problems in other quarters only mean more work for those who design, implement and manage the information technology systems on which big business depends.

Contract staff - who head the earnings tables - are set to reap the riches which commerce and industry will have to pay out.

"We usually see a drop in business across the end of the year, coming out the other side of Christmas with a 10 per cent lower level of business," says Jon Tyler, managing director of the Gatton Consulting Group, a contract agency. "This year we are coming out level or above. Whereas we normally overtake our December level in about mid-February, we're overtaking it in the second week in January."

But the factors that should take the contract market towards the millennium on a wave have not yet fully come into play. The most high-profile is guarding systems against collapse when the year 2000 dawns. The second is the need to take account of the euro, whether or not Britain joins the single currency. The third is the current frenzy of activity in the retail market - the loyalty card in all its guises, then the determination of major retailers to turn themselves into banks.

All this needs enormous investment in IT, and current fashion is to slim down the central staff core and call in free-lances - or to out-source the whole operation.

Paul Davies, chief executive of the agency CSS Trident, points out that this mixed commercial bag will call for new and old IT skills. "The current buoyant market is really driven by new, younger skills, but the millennium issue is more about old mainframe skills, systems that have been around 10 or 20 years, legacy systems, typically Cobol.

"The move towards the euro will really need both those skill sets because older systems will also have to cope with it," Mr Davies says. "Financial institutions, the banks and most exporting companies will need to address that issue by 1999 ... the main need will be flexible resources, people skills."

Contractors' rates in 1996 rose at about twice the rate of inflation, taking their earnings to twice those of their colleagues in permanent jobs. By last summer, CSS Trident was paying its contractors an average of more than pounds 1,000 a week.

Robert Walters Associates confirms that people with the right skills can ask for more. "Object-oriented programmers are being paid pounds 1,600 to pounds 2,000 a week, whilst PC developers can expect from pounds 1,200 to pounds 1,600 a week," says Keith Jones, of RWA's London office. "This is especially the case when they can demonstrate an exceptional track record and reasonable banking knowledge, as investment banks continue to be the best payers."

"The market is the best it has been for years," says Clive South, marketing manager at Software Personnel. "The way a contractor can get the best from it is by picking his or her contract and deciding what they want from their career. There is enough work around to have the choice of going for money, or stability, or a contract closer to home."

However, reality can fall short. Software Personnel has launched a survey to find out what motivates IT personnel to go free-lance, and what problems they find. The results will show whether Britain's growing temporary IT workforce would really prefer a nine-to-five job in the same office, or live life closer to the edge in exchange for more money.

At least, this year there is a consolation for those who hanker after security: the financial rewards are some comfort for doing without

To complete the Software Personnel contractor survey questionnaire, click on the agency's name on the Web page,