Workforce

The state of education and workforce in tunneling and underground construction

The tunneling and underground construction industry is challenged with raising awareness of the industry to young engineers and students considering engineering careers.

The tunneling and underground construction industry is challenged with raising awareness of the industry to young engineers and students considering engineering careers.

The May 6, 2022 federal jobs report shows the U.S. economy continues to strengthen with nonfarm payroll employment increasing by 428,000 jobs in April. Job growth was widespread, with gains in leisure and hospitality, in manufacturing, and in transportation and warehousing. Mining added 9,000 jobs in April, with a gain in oil and gas extraction of 5,000 jobs. Mining employment is 73,000 higher than a low reported in February 2021. The unemployment rate is now at 3.6 percent, the lowest number since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a tight labor market, what does this mean for the tunneling and underground industry? Research shows those numbers are trickier to find as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not single out tunneling and The state of education and workforce in tunneling and underground construction underground occupations. One must look under mining, oil and gas, and construction jobs to try and extract these numbers.

To better understand what UCA members are facing on the ground with hiring and retention, T&UC magazine recently conducted two interview panel sessions with members of UCA. This article is designed to share their insights and perspective from different-size firms and locations in the United States and abroad. Panelists included UCA chair Mike Rispin, who is vice president of tunneling for Strata Worldwide, Mike Roach of Traylor Bros. Inc., Vojtech Ernst Gall of Gall Zeidler Consultants (GZ), Elisa Comis of McMillen Jacobs Associates, Paul Schmall, vice president for Keller and Mike Mooney, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

New world order

There has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on the post-COVID-19 economy. Remote work, flexibility, the great resignation and inflation are all factors in the fast-changing landscape. Although these are certainly considerations the panelists are addressing in their workplaces, some of the back-to-basics approaches of hiring and retaining employees were discussed: internships, onboarding, reverse mentoring, continuous employee engagement and getting boots-on-the-ground experience; none of these has gone away, and may be more important than ever for both workers and employers.

According to Roach, who is the UCA representative to the SME Workforce Committee, although it is difficult to find people with relevant industry experience, when he travels to career fairs, there is no shortage of entry-level engineers looking for jobs. However, “finding people willing to get a little dirty, sweat a little, and build these beautiful things we’ve built, that’s a little harder to find today,” he said, adding that on the other hand, “if we get them early enough, they’re hooked.” One of the major difficulties in recruiting continues to be developing awareness that the tunneling and underground industry even exists, and that these jobs can be rewarding, pay well, have stability, and can in fact offer a positive work-life balance.

The panelists addressed these hurdles, and Mooney shared his perspective from the college environment. He is involved in the “Teach the Professors” program spearheaded by SME and UCA that aims to get more professors understanding and teaching underground concepts.

Academics

Mooney said that there are two pieces to the puzzle: the curriculum and professors. On a broad scale, looking at the education of civil engineers, which is the largest group of engineers who go into tunneling and underground, he said this area has slipped through the cracks, without professors trained in underground, so they are not comfortable teaching it.

Further, most of the civil engineering curriculum caters toward geotechnical and structural engineering, and doesn’t include underground. “We graduate close to 50,000 civil engineers a year in the U.S., and if you did a survey, it would be shocking how many students don’t even know underground construction is an option,” said Mooney.

According to Schmall, who is the “Down for That” initiative lead for the UCA, this is spot on. “There’s a general lack of awareness in the engineering schools about what goes on in underground construction. We’ve been working hard to promote it, and expose the professors too,” said Schmall, whose firm specializes in geotechnical construction. “Professors have a tremendous influence with students as they decide where they want to work.” The reasons why professors aren’t prepared to teach underground concepts are varied and include the fact that there hasn’t been enough state and federal funding for related underground programs because the tunneling and underground construction industry isn’t big or broad enough, and so these professors were funded in other areas for their research while they worked on Ph.Ds. The vast majority were brought up through the academic ranks, and they do their doctoral work in areas that are not in tunneling. “The areas of civil infrastructure that are funding research are not in underground. That’s the way it’s been for 20 to 40 years,” said Mooney.

Elisa Comis of McMillen Jacobs Associates leads a tour of a tunneling sight to raise awareness of the industry with the general public.

Elisa Comis of McMillen Jacobs Associates leads a tour of a tunneling sight to raise awareness of the industry with the general public.

If you contrast this to foundational engineering, for example, which involves deep piling and drilled shafts, although it is somewhat a specialty area, it is a much bigger area in terms of what is done and practiced. “Professors are trained in these areas. They’ve done research in this area. They’ve written textbooks in this area. So now you’ve got curriculum and foundations, entire courses devoted to the subject. It becomes selffulfilling, because every civil engineering student goes through these courses and learns from the people who were trained in it, and so you’ve got an entire industry,” said Mooney.

This is not the case in tunneling. Although there are a few courses offered here and there, they are mostly electives, taken by a handful of students, and only offered at a few universities, according to Mooney.

“That’s one of the big drivers. We don’t have the curriculum in place. We’d like to create this kind of infrastructure in tunneling so that every student goes through it, gets more exposure to the topic. We are also working to get more professors trained in it so they are comfortable teaching these topics. This is the goal of the UCA Teach the Professors program,” said Mooney. “I think more broadly, we just need to grow that. As tunneling grows, you could envision a day when it’s as popular as foundational engineering.”

Mooney also pointed out that the trend he sees for students is toward more mechanical engineering degrees. “This seems to have become the de facto engineering degree. At the same time, the kind of sophistication, automation and mechanization of tunneling today, these two trends need to come together with more outreach to the mechanical engineering students.”

He thinks this is evolving and changing with awareness campaigns in underground construction and tunneling jobs and as funding from the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure law starts to trickle in because colleges will be funded in those areas where the work will be done, and that too will help create awareness of these types of jobs.

There was agreement among the panelists that members of the industry must continue to create awareness among the public about all that underground construction work can offer, that there are exciting jobs in this field, and that they are open to people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Schmall is convinced the most effective way to increase student interest is to reach young people directly. “To me, the most exciting thing you can do with a civil engineering degree is go into underground construction and tunneling. We have to wow them directly to peak their interest, then connect them to places to work,” said Schmall.

Spreading the word

Comis shared an experience she had with spreading this awareness. She is the Women in Tunneling lead for the UCA and with her firm she was involved in the construction of the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel, one of the most significant projects of the Akron Waterways Renewed! program in Akron, OH. Prior to the tunnel boring machine (TBM) launch, the public was invited to visit the site and to see the fully assembled TBM. They had hoped for a few hundred people to attend, and instead they got close to 1,500 people. Out of all the networking that happened that day, Comis was invited to join the advisory board of the women in engineering at the University of Akron.

The outreach program at the university was involved in local STEM efforts, especially related to getting girls interested in engineering careers. Over time, through these connections, Comis’ firm, McMillen Jacobs, has hired two female engineering graduates directly out of this program. They are now working in McMillen’s Cleveland office. “This was a city that had never seen a major tunneling project before. The more tunnel projects that happen, the more awareness is created. I am hopeful that the more people know about these careers, the more there will be a chain effect,” said Comis.

Image of underground careers

Comis is a member of the newly formed SME Inclusion and Diversity Committee and her work in this area has made her realize that it is not just an awareness issue that is keeping people out of this industry, but one of image that must be clarified. “Today, I find prospective hires interview me instead of the other way around. They want to know and ask me right away about worklife balance,” said Comis. “If I work in underground, will I be able to have a family?” she’s asked. “Most of us are working long hours in underground, and so it can be difficult to perceive, but you can have great worklife balance in this field, and we just don’t promote it properly.”

The panelists said young people are generally very savvy today when it comes to asking for what they want and being direct in questions pertaining to employment. Rispin, who is the UCA chair, recently lectured at the construction management program at Purdue University and said he can’t contain his excitement when he talks to students about careers in underground. These students are looking for internships too. “I talk to them about all the different facets. There’s engineering, there’s contracting, there’s suppliers, there’s owners. Underground construction definitely has some elements of theoretical, but it’s practical, and it offers a lifestyle that’s different from what kids may traditionally be thinking about. It may not be for everybody, I’m always honest about that,” he said.

What does the lifestyle of a tunneling and underground construction career offer? One major draw for some may be the ability to travel the world. “You’ve got to be prepared to move where the projects are. There are a lot of people the world over in the tunneling industry who are nomadic. They’ll go on a project for three, four, five years and then take a break and then … go on to the next project. If they’re attuned to wanting to see different lifestyles, cultures, see different places and challenges, then it fits them to a T, they love it,” said Rispin.

Getting to students earlier There was also agreement that outreach needs to happen earlier, either in middle or high school. Trying to get students interested in underground construction and tunneling when they are already in college is too late. “We have great experiences talking with kids in elementary school and we see their eyes light up. We need to make these jobs as well known as those of a firefighter or police officer,” said Comis. “We also need to recruit for a variety of populations. It’s not just about gender, but also race,” said Comis. The larger companies like Stantec are moving faster in these efforts, understanding and engaging with a broader audience for recruiting and retention.

“We have to reach them younger. Right now we’re kind of in panic mode, aiming for the college students because that’s where we think we will see immediate results,” said Schmall. “Invariably, when we do present to young people, we knock their socks off, because the work is incredibly exciting and challenging. We just need to get in front of the students and do that.” COVID has made that difficult in recent years, but the in-person outreach has started again.

“When students enter the pipeline for STEM from middle school is really the place to address the diversity issue, that’s how you change the mix and create an available pool of talent,” said Mooney.

In Comis’ experience, there is really no midpoint on how people feel about working in tunneling once they start. “They either run away or love it to death,” she said. Comis has worked in remote and difficult locations, but had realized early on she wanted a career that involved travel. “I’ve been to Africa, India, Turkey. It is often difficult; you have to be committed to sustaining the work. Being on location is part of the deal; it’s a talent or skill that you have to have in this industry,” she added. Rispin said, “It can be tough on individuals, relationships, families. At the same time, if you’re the right people, you can make very good coin doing it and live a great lifestyle. In a lot of cases for people who go to remote and foreign places, the compensation is very good, and a lot of R&R is built into the contract.”

Hiring

For Gall, the UCA Young Members lead, the difficulty is finding the right people at the right time. This can range from finding qualified or senior engineers to field staff. Often, the firm finds qualified field staff internationally to fulfill their staffing needs. They try and hire and train engineers in what they need to do, because there is often a gap in knowledge.

Traylor Bros. has a strong mentoring program, and Roach feels this is instrumental in their hiring the right people and keeping them on. “We try to get them early with internships, keep them engaged, and give them a reason to stay. We have a tremendous amount of training. Even 15 years on, you have to keep all employees engaged,” said Roach.

Gall feels the big design firms in New York City have a leg up when it comes to recruiting. Some of this is because they are so well known, similar to the case of a technical person first thinking of working at Google or Apple. “A lot of the young talent that we do attract is from overseas,” said Gall, whose firm has hired from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and China, which he said does help create a more diverse workforce.

In his experience, Gall said, “A lot of the times you have people that come to the industry wanting to be a civil engineer and then end up working on an underground project because that’s the project they get assigned to and that’s what creates their interest in the industry, rather than them actually searching for a project in the underground industry. To a certain degree, tunneling is a small fish in a big pond,” said Gall.

“If young students knew the advantages of going to a smaller firm, as opposed to a big firm, whether it’s on the design side or the contractor side, they would jump on it,” Roach said. “You go to work for them, and there’s 300 cubicles of people in there and then you realize, that’s just their class of 2022, and you wonder, how am I going to make my mark in this environment?”

Gall said, “I love working with people who have contractor and on-site backgrounds. In the end, the physics is what it is, the rock, the structure behaves how it does, and you learn that as a design engineer. But the logistics. The nitty gritty, that you don’t learn. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and you’ve got to make some on-the-fly decisions on site. You can’t just sit on a submittal for days because your shotcrete’s coming in and you’ve got to use it, or you don’t use it…” He added, “You start on site and then you have an idea of how things happen on site. Then you move to the back of the house, so you can actually understand what’s going on.”

For Roach, as far as retaining people in the industry, “What we do as contractors really isn’t taught in colleges and universities. They don’t teach you how to build tunnels. You can get a course here and there on general tunneling techniques, but to get into it, to get into the weeds, it’s just not there. So what we have to do is we have to teach these students what we do and how we do it. And what we’re looking for in new graduates is people who have the basic tools in their toolbox, civil, mechanical, electrical engineering degrees, and from there we know we have to teach them what we do and how we do it.”

Careers in tunneling offer a wide variety of challenges and benefits.

Careers in tunneling offer a wide variety of challenges and benefits.

Conclusion

Rispin said, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do until probably the last year of college. I was studying mining engineering and was leaning toward the sales and marketing side because of the fit with my personality. After going out and doing summer jobs, I knew I didn’t want an air-conditioned office. I wanted to be on the road. I wanted to see different projects and get my hands dirty. I never wanted to do calculus again. I wanted to do practical and observational engineering, and that’s how it worked out for me.”

He added, “I think a lot of young people don’t necessarily know what they want to do. Coming back around full circle, we have an issue with making people aware of what kind of wonderful careers we can offer in our industry, but we also fight a battle to make it look attractive against some of the other options that they may be considering.”

Going back to his experience at Purdue, Rispin said, “So many of these students are looking for internships. I wonder if there’s a way we can become more systematic with that? I know there’s a lot of kids out there looking for it, and if we get to them early, we can keep them engaged.”

Gall said, “I don’t hear young people complaining too much. Most people who study civil engineering and are working in our industry are relatively content. I don’t see any issues there.”

As for the future of the industry, the International Tunneling Association’s last triannual report forecast that global tunneling is going to grow at a 7 to 9 percent compound annual growth rate.

“My international colleagues and I feel that’s conservative. It’s in the double digits. The industry is very healthy. It’s growing. Society needs tunneling. It’s going to need more tunneling, and in order to do that, you’ve got technology, but you’re still going to need more people. This number is also looking really good domestically as well,” said Rispin.

Roach predicts the same. “Last year, the Tunneling Association of Canada reached out and was inviting U.S. contractors to come up to their annual meeting because they have so much work to build up there and not enough Canadian contractors to do the work. They’re going to need outside contractors to come in.”

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