It may seem like underground construction and tunnel engineering is having a moment, thanks in part to Elon Musk and the high-tech sheen of his Hyperloop and The Boring Company projects.
But the truth is that the industry, in addition to a rich history, has a thriving and varied present and anticipates further growth in its immediate future, driving demand for engineers with the advanced skills needed to meet its unique challenges.
While underground projects—especially large and complex builds—require all manner of engineers, those with specialized training in underground construction and tunnel engineering (UCTE) have greater opportunities to take part in and lead these efforts.
“UCTE is an interdisciplinary mix of structural, geotechnical and construction disciplines from civil engineering, excavation and material handling from mining engineering, and ground/groundwater characterization from geological engineering” says Mike Mooney, Grewcock Chair Professor of Underground Construction & Tunneling and Director of the UCTE graduate program. “Our UCTE graduate degree program blends the key components from our civil, mining and geological engineering degree programs.”
“UCTE is the perfect marriage of geological sciences and fundamental engineering,” says Ryan O’Connell, a master’s student in underground construction and tunnel engineering at Colorado School of Mines.
The need to address transportation challenges—whether it’s via underground roadways, subways and train tunnels or more futuristic efforts such as Musk’s Loop system—is just one of the many factors leading to increased interest in subterranean construction.
“Urbanization is driving underground development,” says Mooney,. “Urban areas have less room and need more infrastructure—water, wastewater, stormwater, energy, utilities, and data centers. Underground provides huge opportunity to make cities livable.”
“Tunneling is one promising alternative for solving these problems and meeting the demands of our growing cities,” O’Connell says.
All this means engineers who specialize in underground construction and tunnel design and construction are in high demand. “We have 100 percent placement of our graduates,” says Mooney, with an average of two to three job offers for every student who completes the program.
With that demand comes commensurate compensation. Industry job titles are varied, so it’s a little tricky to pin down, but the numbers are impressive regardless.
At minimum, pursuing an advanced degree in underground construction and tunnel engineering requires a bachelor’s degree, prerequisite coursework related to the strength or mechanics of materials and fluid mechanics, and acceptable GRE scores.
Succeeding, however, takes more than the basics. Mines students and faculty can provide excellent advice on preparing for an advanced program in UCTE.
Advanced degree programs specializing in underground construction and tunneling are rare: Colorado School of Mines has the only such program in North America. However, whether you are considering a bachelor’s, masters or doctoral degree, graduate certificates or short courses, there are several things to keep in mind.