Manpower, in its latest quarterly survey, found that 16 percent of the nearly 16,000 employers interviewed said they would add workers in the first quarter. Another 16 percent, however, said they intend to cut permanent positions in the first quarter.
Most employers - 61 percent - expect no change to staffing levels, and 7 percent were uncertain about their plans.
Just three months earlier, the survey found 24 percent of employers were planning to recruit, while 11 percent intended to decrease staff. At that time, 60 percent planned no changes and 5 percent were uncertain.
The steep decline in the number of employers that expect to hire is the largest since 1991 and accelerates a downtrend in hiring intentions in place since the second quarter, said Jerry Joerres, Manpower chairman and chief executive.
"We've dropped precipitously," Joerres said in an interview with the Reuters news agency. "We are on a path downward, and our direction is set at least for another quarter and potentially another quarter more than that."
Manpower conducted the survey during the first two weeks of October, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorism.
Joerres said it is difficult to assess whether the attacks on the United States hastened companies' plans to cut back because similar sharp, sudden drops in hiring intentions were seen in past recessions.
A year ago, when the U.S. economy was still chugging along in a record decade-long expansion, 27 percent of employers expected to add staff while 10 percent foresaw cutbacks and 58 percent planned no work force changes, Manpower said.
The U.S. economy contracted at a 0.4 percent annual pace in the third quarter, and many economists expect it to decelerate again in the fourth quarter, which would confirm a recession.
Job cutbacks are being felt across all industries, but manufacturing is bearing the brunt of the declines, and times are the toughest they've been in a long while, Joerres said.
"Manufacturing is suffering more than it has in the last few recessions," Joerres said. "Manufacturing has been in some very dire conditions for a while."
loyers' plans for hiring new workers have shrunk to their lowest levels since the recession years of 1982 and 1991, according to a new survey by staffing firm Manpower Inc.