By John S. McClenahen Although their economic confidence has slipped some, middle-market CEOs surveyed by TEC International, San Diego, generally foresee continued economic expansion in the U.S. this year, and they plan to hire and continue to invest in 2004. Seventy percent of the 1,091 chief executives surveyed during the last week of February said they expected continued economic improvement in the coming year. That is down, however, from 81% of CEOs surveyed in the fourth quarter of last year. "Although firms did expect a lightly slower pace of growth, they still judge overall economic conditions [to be] quite favorable," says Richard Curtin, a consultant on the TEC Confidence Index and director of surveys of consumers at the University of Michigan. Nearly 85% of the CEOs surveyed plan to hire workers this year, the majority in full-time positions. Nearly a majority (48%) of all new hires are expected to be in sales and marketing. Meanwhile, for the third consecutive quarter, 50% of the CEOs surveyed said they planned to increase investment outlays during the year. Outsourcing will continue as well, the survey indicates. Twenty percent of the companies plan to send some business function offshore -- and for nearly half of the companies that will be production.