Construction employment will go up - very slightly - in 2012, contractors predicted in a survey released Monday by the Associated General Contractors of America.

Modest improvements in hiring in 2011 and equally modest forecasts for 2012 will do little to compensate for two million jobs lost in construction since the start of the recession in December 2007, said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association's chief executive.

Unemployment in construction remains at 16 percent - or nearly one in six in the business out of work.

In a best-case scenario, the organization's chief economist Ken Simonson forecasts an increase of 250,000 jobs in 2012, but that increase could easily slip to a deficit of 3,000 jobs if housing remains dismal and public spending declines drastically.

Fueling any gains are increases in power, hospital, and higher education projects, Simonson said.

As consumers increasingly switch to online buying, warehouse construction for order fulfillment is on the rise and there is new construction near ports as Eastern seaboard communities gear up for the arrival of larger ships able to move through a deepened Panama Canal, he said.

Construction in bricks-and-mortar retail seems to be in retrofit work as retailers repurpose new space captured at distressed market prices, he said.

Tight credit is still hurting construction, with firms reporting that their customers can't get the funding to move ahead on projects.

Also, "the impacts of the stimulus are fading fast," Simonson said.

The survey notes that many contractors relied on stimulus-funding projects over the past years, but few expect to perform much stimulus-funded work in 2012.

In Pennsylvania, for example, 62 percent of those surveyed had stimulus work, with most of them assigning the majority of their workers to those projects. But in 2012, only one in five expects stimulus work.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com or @JaneVon Bergen on Twitter.