The underground construction and tunneling industry is growing. In February 2020, Tunnel Business Magazine spoke to four high-level tunneling professionals who all found much to be optimistic about in the North American tunneling market, citing continued expansion in the transportation and water/wastewater sectors in the U.S. and Canada.
Bruce Matheson of Terratec noted the many projects mandated by the U.S. Clean Water Act and the Canada Water Act to protect bodies of water. “Whilst not so glamorous as the big mega-projects, they play a vital role from an environmental point of view,” he said. “Tunneling isn’t just about mega-projects, however. Whether they are big or small, there seem to be a lot of projects about.”
“Tunneling is an exciting market to be part of, particularly as a younger professional,” said Brian Gettinger, tunneling services leader for Freese and Nichols Inc. “The industry has a growing need for leadership at all levels: project, corporate and technical management. And we are seeing challenging mega-projects get started all over the county. Excavation technology continues to improve and allow even challenging conditions to be excavated reliably and safely.”
While federal funding for transportation has flattened, local and state governments have increased their investment in tunnel construction. That, combined with the growth of public-private partnerships, has sustained growth in the industry, which is expected to grow in the next five years.
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 $105,517. Glassdoor pegs the average salary for senior underground engineers at $94,485 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 $92,250 per year in 2018.
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.