IT professionals may have cause for optimism regarding the state of the UK job market in 2003, according to a report from the Association of Technology Staffing Companies (ATSCo) and iProfileStats. ATSCo's research reveals that since September 2002 there has been a significant increase in the market value of core IT skills such as C++, Java, MS SQL Server, MS Visual Basic and Unix. In the past three months alone average contractor rates have risen by 14 percent, with salaries for permanent staff rising by 10 percent. These increases are yet to peg back the losses during the darkest days of the downturn in mid-2002, when contractor rates and permanent salaries fell by around 20 percent in six months -- or £10 per hour and £10,000 per annum respectively. However, with many predicting that the worst is now behind us, ATSCo's findings reflect the simple fact that "things can only get better." Last month Kate McClorey, director at IT recruitment specialist Elan, told silicon.com: "Although the figures show that the market continues to be quite depressed, with companies still announcing redundancies and reeling from scandals, we do believe the worst is over. We predict that by 2003 the IT jobs market will begin to grow again." ATSCo's figures certainly support this latter assertion, stating that the bottom has been hit and the sector in now advanced in its modest rebound, singling out contractors to reap the earliest rewards of recovery. Ann Swain, chief executive of ATSCo, said in a statement: "Contractors are usually the first into and the first out of a recession." Alex Charles, director of TheSkillsMarket, which owns iProfile Stats, said: "Over the past few months we've had reports of pockets of recovery in most of the major skill areas due to companies starting projects that had previously been put on hold. This is reflected in the current pay increases for contract and permanent staff." In terms of specific skills, contractors boasting MS SQL Server on their CV have seen the most dramatic upturn in rates, going from being the least valuable skill this time last year to be the most valuable currently. Since September 2002 rates have risen from just over £30 per hour to around £45. Over the same timescale the average value of Java skills has risen from around £37 per hour to £42 per hour. Those with C++ and Unix skills are seeing the slowest improvement in terms of value, with C++ at its lowest valuation currently, but at least showing signs of levelling off around the £32 per hour mark.