Lori Nelson didn't choose to leave Phoenix's construction industry - it left her.

Her three-decade career in construction ended abruptly when she was laid off in 2009, as one of 93,600 people to lose construction work in Phoenix since the industry peaked in 2006.

That was the largest job drop in a single market, according to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America.

The industry is starting to see a rebound today, contractors say. But many companies and their former workers weren't able to wait out the recession.

Nelson said a lot of her colleagues "tried to just switch careers to find whatever work they could find, and some of them just moved. Some of them went back to Mexico. It's just so bad."

The general contractors report also showed that the Lake Havasu metro area lost 70 percent of its construction jobs in recent years, the highest percentage drop among the 337 metro areas in the country.

The report measured different time periods in different markets, beginning when each market hit its peak and ending in December 2011. For Phoenix, the numbers dropped from 175,500 people in construction jobs in 2006 to 81,900 at the end of 2011.

The Lake Havasu and Kingman area peaked in December 2005 at 7,600 construction jobs and fell to 2,300, a loss of 5,300 workers or 70 percent.

The burst of the housing bubble was largely to blame, noted Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.

"Up through about 2005, there was a widespread view that people could always sell a house whenever they wanted," he said. "And then the music stopped; the lending was cut off; house prices started to decline. That hurt residential construction.

"It was a whole combination of things that came together and made a very bad scene for construction," he said.

That housing downturn forced a lot of companies to shut down - including the construction inspection firm where 52-year-old Nelson worked.

Those companies that survived cut crew sizes, and many bosses got their hands dirty again.

"A lot of companies that were around are not around anymore," said Mike Falvey, owner of MF Construction Group. "Now you have the younger owners at companies going back and swinging hammers themselves."

new life

But in recent months, Phoenix's construction sector has begun to show new life. Simonson said the area has gotten past its reliance on residential construction and started picking up the slack with retail, clean-energy and medical construction.

"In the last 12 months, Phoenix has done somewhat better than the nation as a whole," Simonson said. The area picked up 1,900 jobs from January 2011 to January 2012, according to the new analysis of employment numbers released this month by the Associated General Contractors of America.

"That shows the underlying strength of the Phoenix area - not just a place for retirees, vacationers or business travelers but as an employment center," he said.

Simonson said the state's construction industry as a whole has started to rebound in the last few months. Brett Jones agrees.

"Sometimes, especially in construction, you have to make it through those lean years to make it," said Jones, vice president of operations for the Arizona Contractors Association.

Lake Havasu has yet to bounce back, and some wonder if it ever will.

After benefiting from years of retirees moving to the Sun Belt, Lake Havasu is no longer building new homes because people either cannot afford to retire or cannot sell their homes and move.

"They're stuck up in iceberg-land," Simonson said of people living in cold climes.

tucson's numbers

From their peaks in 2005 and 2006 until the end of 2011, Arizona's metro areas posted some of the steepest construction-job losses in the nation, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

Here's how Tucson fared:

28,300

Construction jobs at the 2006 peak

15,500

Construction jobs at the end of 2011

-45%

Change in available construction jobs

279

Tucson had the 279th largest job loss out of 337 metro areas.