CHICAGO -- Whether involved in consulting or limited-scale manufacturing, small businesses surveyed by the Washington-based National Federation of Independent Business say they have more than the usual number of jobs to be filled.

William Dunkelberg, who supervised the survey, said job openings reached a new high, with 23 percent reporting unfilled positions and 42 percent of New England-based companies reporting job openings.

Nineteen percent of the firms said they plan to increase employment in the next three months, while 5 percent plan reductions.

"These are the strongest hiring plans since 1978, on a seasonally adjusted basis," said Dunkelberg, chief economist and dean of the business school at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The group's quarterly survey, taken in January, asked small-business owners about employment, inventory investment, capital expenditures, inflation, labor costs, borrowing activity and interest rates.

Employment showed up as one of the survey's strongest categories.

New hiring plans were strong in manufacturing, with 28 percent planning to increase employment and 8 percent planning work-force reductions.

The survey showed that small firms reduced employment by 0.01 employees per firm in the fourth quarter of 1987.

Offsetting seasonal declines, the companies said they have retained many employees from the fourth quarter and are continuing to increase employment.

Thirteen percent of the firms said they added an average of four workers to payrolls, while 17 percent cut employment an average of 3.2 workers.

The small manufacturers proved to be the heaviest employers in the fourth quarter, adding an average of 0.9 employees per firm.