Hiring will stay flat nationwide during the first three months of next year, nearing levels not seen since the last two recessions, according to a survey released Monday.

Sixteen percent of the firms interviewed said they planned to add jobs during the first quarter of next year, while another 16 percent said they anticipated cutting staff during the same time, according to Manpower Inc.'s quarterly survey of 16,000 American businesses.

That compares with 27 percent who planned to increase employment and 10 percent who anticipated cutbacks a year ago.

The other firms said they would maintain staffing levels or were uncertain about hiring activity.

The figures continue a decline in hiring strength that began last spring. They approximate those of the recessionary years of 1982 and 1991, when hiring levels reached historic lows in the survey's 25-year history, said Jeffrey Joerres, chief executive and chairman of Glendale-based Manpower, the nation's largest staffing company.

``While we don't like the results, they're not coming as much of a surprise,'' Joerres said. ``We've been heading down for some period of time, and it will take some period of time to reverse this.''

It's too early to say what kind of effect the terrorist attacks has had on hiring, but Sept. 11 could have sped up an already downward trend, Joerres said.

A decline in hiring manufacturing jobs will continue as 21 percent of durable goods manufacturers said they planned to cut jobs and 15 percent of other manufacturers anticipated cutbacks in the first quarter of next year, the survey found. Durable goods are costly manufactured items, such as farm equipment and industrial machinery, expected to last at least three years.