Top U.S. executives say their companies are moving out of the defensive position they adopted during the recent worldwide downturn and are aggressively planning to grow, according to the latest semiannual survey by the Business Council.

But the survey of chief executives found continued wariness on the hiring front, especially in the United States -- bad news for the 8.4 million U.S. workers who have lost their jobs since the recession began in December 2007.

More than a third of the CEOs polled by the Business Council said they believe new industries not yet on the radar would be a key source of future job creation.

And asked where they thought the already dismal U.S. jobless rate was headed this year, nearly three out four executives said it would either stay pretty much where it is or head higher.

The survey found what the Business Council characterized as a leveling off of expectations among CEOS following an encouraging jump in sentiment last fall.

Asked for their outlook on their own industries over the next six months, 60.8 percent of the CEOs said they expected things to improve, down from 62.9 percent in the survey conducted last fall. Even so, not a single CEO expressed optimism that his or her own industry would improve substantially over the next six months - and 36.5 percent said they expected no change, up from 31.4 percent in the last survey.

The survey was released on Thursday, at the beginning of a two-day meeting of the Business Council's CEO members at a resort in this Florida beach town, located north of Miami.

The group meets twice a year for what are reportedly free-wheeling explorations of current business issues featuring panels of executives, policymakers and academics. The events are closed to the media, although reporters show up anyway for a chance to interview the CEOs between sessions.

The focus of this get-together is jobs and the economy. Scheduled panelists and speakers included Dell Inc founder Michael Dell, Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg, Goldman Sachs Group Inc CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Ford Motor Co CEO Alan Mulally, as well as White House economic advisor Austan Goolsbee.

Because of a crippling snow storm on the East Coast, however, it is not clear how many of the panelists will actually attend.

In the survey conducted earlier this month, CEOs were asked to forecast where a number of closely watched U.S. economic indicators were headed this year, including the jobless rate and GDP growth.

The overwhelming majority - 74.3 percent - said they believed the unemployment rate would remain above 9.6 percent in 2010.

Little wonder: In the separate question on the survey asking the CEOs where they might bring on new workers, markets outside the U.S. was the No. 1 choice.

The reason: Only 6.8 percent of the CEOs surveyed believe the U.S. economy will grow at a rate of 3.1 percent or more in 2010.

But not all overseas markets are looking attractive. While most of the executives say they are bullish on growth prospects in China and the rest of Asia, only 36 percent reported improving conditions in Europe. These results suggest that the near-term rebound in Europe is not gaining momentum, the Business Council said.

The Business Council's membership includes the top executives of over 100 U.S. companies, including nearly every member of the Dow Jones industrial average.

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)