MILWAUKEE--According to a survey of nearly 16,000 U.S. firms, employment activity is expected to remain near historically low levels in the final quarter of the year.

Results of the Employment Outlook Survey, conducted quarterly by Manpower Inc., indicate that 24 percent of all companies expect to add employees in the fourth quarter, while 11 percent will reduce their workforce. No change is anticipated by 60 percent, and 5 percent are uncertain.

In the prior quarter, 27 percent projected increases, and 9 percent planned reductions. The fourth quarter outlook represents a decline from the levels of the final 3 months of last year, when 32 percent would add workers and only 7 percent projected declines.

Hiring will particularly slow in manufacturing. The key segments of durable and nondurable goods manufacturing project year-end hiring at levels approaching those experienced during 1981 and 1991.

"While the new figures show a modest decline from last quarter on a deseasonalized basis, we see no clear evidence of a trend reversal in hiring in the months ahead," says Jeffrey Jorres, Manpower chairman and CEO.