Computer workers log on to rich pickings

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DEMAND FOR computer staff is driving the number of the jobs - and the salaries they command - to a new high.

A survey shows that in the first half of the year there were 130,000 jobs, offering combined wages of pounds 2bn, advertised in the specialist magazine Computer Weekly, while one company that runs a Web-based service e-mailing job vacancies to IT staff says the figure is probably higher.

"We have advertised more than 600,000 jobs, and by the end of the year it will be over a million," said John Witney, co-founder of Jobserve, which sends details of the jobs on offer at 1,200 computer recruitment agencies in Britain to almost 60,000 people every day. "The growth in jobs offered is about 5 per cent per month." The number of vacancies in Computer Weekly is about double that of the 1992-93 recession

Skills shortages have been endemic throughout the commercial computing sector's 30-year history. Because the technology keeps changing at a rapid pace, it creates the need for fresh sets of programming abilities, while old systems often have to be kept running because they are the bedrock of a company's operation.

Managers and recruitment agencies reckon the present demand is being fuelled by two forces: the increasing tendency of staff to become their own boss, as "contractors"; and the unavoidable deadline of the year 2000. All companies need staff who will pick over their existing systems to identify and fix problems that would otherwise result from the "millennium bug", caused by the changeover from 1999 to 2000.

Because the work is unexciting and must be done to a set timetable, many companies have been forced to offer bonuses - up to 30 per cent of salary in some cases - to persuade permanent staff to stay.

Even so, many are choosing instead to become self-employed as contractors, which means they can demand fees of more than pounds 1,000 each week across the country, and up to 50 per cent more in London.

"We had a graduate who after one year's experience decided to go freelance as a computer contractor, and he is now making the equivalent of pounds 50,000 annually," said Ann Zinkin, a director at the London-based Aztech Computer Recruitment.

"We have more and more candidates who come to us, having done two years on a permanent contract, and can get silly money as a contractor."