updated 12/11/2007 12:01:22 AM ET 2007-12-11T05:01:22

Fewer than a quarter of employers expect to add positions in the first quarter of the new year, almost the same as a year ago, according to a survey of 14,000 companies being released Tuesday.

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Twelve percent of companies said they expect to reduce employment in the three-month period starting in January, while 22 percent said they’ll add jobs, according to the survey by Milwaukee-based global staffing firm Manpower Inc.

The numbers show a slight drop from hiring intentions during the same quarter last year, when 23 percent of employers said they’d increase hiring and 11 percent expected a decrease. They also show more pessimism than last quarter, when 27 percent of employers planned to increase hiring and only 9 percent planned a decline.

But overall, they don’t represent big changes, said Melanie Holmes, vice president of world of work solutions for Manpower.

“Employers anticipate only marginal changes compared to the previous quarter so I don’t think we’re going to be seeing anything dramatic,” she said.

The majority of employers in the latest report — 60 percent — expected no change in hiring between January and March, while 6 percent of companies were unsure of their plans.

The survey continues a 16-quarter stretch of fairly strong hiring intentions, in which more than 20 percent of companies surveyed said they planned to add to their staffs.

Still, the quarterly survey conducted since 1962 shows employers in most of the 10 job categories it tracks expect to trim hiring from the same quarter last year, including manufacturing, education and services and public administration.

Construction companies expect one of the larger drops, with 23 percent of employers saying they expect to curtail hiring, compared with 16 percent in the same quarter last year. Seventeen percent of employers in this sector say they expect to increase hiring, down slightly from 18 percent last year.

Wholesale and retail saw a slight drop, with 21 percent of companies saying they planned to increase hiring, down from 23 percent last year. Eighteen percent plan a decrease, up from 17 percent last year.

In the finances and real estate sector, plans to increase hiring remained steady at 21 percent. But the number of companies in the sector that planned to hire less than last year grew from 7 percent to 9 percent.

Holmes said the survey doesn’t ask why employers choose to increase, decrease or maintain their staffing levels. Attention to the mortgage crisis or possibility of a recession could be reasons, but the survey can’t say for sure, she said.

“Nobody of course has a crystal ball and knows whether or not those things are going to happen, so it’s not real surprising that some employers are going to be cutting back,” she said.

Job growth by region was relatively stable, though the Midwest reported a drop from last quarter.

Nineteen percent of companies in the Midwest reported they would increase hiring in the first quarter, down from 26 percent during the previous one. Thirteen percent of companies were planning a decline, up from 9 percent last quarter.

The West continues to have the best outlook, with 29 percent of employers saying they planned to increase hiring, down from 33 percent last quarter. Eleven percent of employers said they planned to decrease hiring, up from 10 percent last quarter.

The South dipped slightly with 23 percent of employers expecting to increase hiring next quarter, down from 26 percent last quarter. Eleven percent expected to decrease hiring, up from 8 percent last quarter.

The Northeast also saw a dip, with 21 percent of companies saying they planned to increase staff, down from 25 percent last quarter. Thirteen percent of employers in that region said they planned a decrease, up from 10 percent last quarter.

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