While the COVID-19 pandemic and political uncertainty cast a large shadow in 2020, a $2 trillion infrastructure bill making its way through Congress has given professionals and companies in the tunneling industry plenty to be optimistic about.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was passed by the U.S. Senate in August 2021 but must still be approved by the House of Representatives. If it makes its way to the desk of President Biden, underground construction professionals will likely have their pick of projects in the years to come.
The bill proposes $110 billion for roads, bridges and major projects, $89.9 billion for public transit, $66 billion for passenger and freight rail and $55 billion for water infrastructure, all of which will have underground and tunneling components.
“Investment in infrastructure is critical to our nation’s success,” said Mike Rispin, vice president for tunneling at Strata and chairman of the Underground Construction Association, a division of SME, in an article in Mining Engineering. “Consequently, the passing of this legislation portends much needed and very good news,” he said. “The tunneling industry will be watching carefully to determine what effects will impact us directly so that we may look collectively forward and determine how best to meet the challenge and opportunity ahead.”
There’s also good news north of the border. In February 2021, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $14.9 billion in funding for public transit projects over the next eight years. Ontario has already selected five priority projects it hopes the federal government will fund; three are subway projects in Toronto.
Reports on the growth of the tunnel boring machine market are also promising: it’s expected to reach $8.4 billion by 2025, from $5.2 billion in 2017, according to Allied Market Research.
This means engineers who specialize in underground construction and tunneling are in high demand. “We have 100 percent placement of our graduates,” says Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Mike Mooney, who leads the UCTE graduate program at Colorado School of Mines. He reports an average of two to three job offers for every student who completes the program.
Job titles for underground construction and tunnel engineers vary. According to ZipRecruiter, tunnel engineers earn an average annual salary of $105,497. Glassdoor pegs the average salary for senior underground engineers at $118,855 per year, while Comparably.com says the average chief underground engineer in the United States makes $124,903 yearly. Mining and geological engineers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, had a median pay of $93,800 per year in 2020.
Underground and tunnel construction may seem like a niche industry, but don’t be fooled. Mines graduates alone have gone on to work for the following companies:
- Traylor Brothers
- Frontier Kemper
- Jay Dee
- Kajima Corporation
- Hayward Baker
- Soil Freeze
- Simem Underground
- Mott MacDonald
- MacMillan Jacobs Associates
- Brierley Associates
- CDM Smith
- Gall Zeidler
“I have no doubt that my career in the tunneling industry will take me to tunneling projects in some of the world’s biggest and most famous cities as nations work toward building sustainable transportation infrastructure for future generations,” says Ryan O’Connell, a master’s student in UCTE at Mines.
Amid this growth is concern over the lack of skilled personnel. Most tunneling experts have more general qualifications in areas such as civil, structural and geotechnical disciplines and develop their expertise on the job, which is where an advanced degree program in underground construction and tunnel engineering such as Mines’ can fill the gap.