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Elevate | How to get ahead in tunnelling

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As part of Elevate, New Civil Engineer’s careers week, we take a look at the jobs market in tunnelling. 

Outlook

On a heavily populated island nation characterised by rivers and hills, many UK infrastructure projects rely on tunnelling.

“With increased pressure on land availability and greater consideration of environmental concerns, infrastructure is increasingly expanding into underground space,” says Mike Sleath, chief engineer at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins infrastructure business.

Massive projects requiring expert below-ground engineering in the UK at the moment include the Thames Tideway Tunnel, the Northern Line Extension, the York Potash Tunnel and High Speed 2.

“These are supported by a strong pipeline of future work on projects ranging from the Silvertown Tunnel, A303 and Lower Thames Crossing tunnels through the Heathrow Airport Expansion to London Underground station upgrades and National Grid’s cable tunnel programme,” says Sleath.

Traditional requirements

Tunnelling will remain a growth area for some time, Sleath predicts, and people with the right attributes and experience will be in high demand.

He says that core competencies for working on tunnel projects at a consulting engineer start with a solid grasp of maths and physics.

“Our work is also very much about communication, organisation, creativity and vision,” he adds.

Chartered status is generally required for senior roles in the tunnelling sector, and this can be achieved via an academic or a vocational route.

These require a civil engineering degree or apprenticeship to be undertaken followed by a period of personal development on the job. As such, graduate and apprentice engineers are often supported to work on tunnelling schemes.

Specialising in tunnelling can lead to promotions into more sophisticated or niche roles in the sector, and this can begin with an interest in geotechnical engineering.

How roles are changing

Digital skills are becoming an increasingly important part of working in tunnelling.

Sleath says an ability to write software and use innovative digital tools is “highly valuable”.

“Advances in technology have been crucial to making tunnels and other underground works easier and safer to access, construct and maintain,” he says.

ICE learning and development manager Dean Lenton says that “everything is changing towards a digital way of working” and skill sets will have to adjust to this.

Predicting the future

Lenton says artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, building information modelling and new business models such as the ICE’s Project 13 will make infrastructure projects more efficient and engineers more productive in years to come.

It seems clear that the day-to-day tasks undertaken by tunnelling engineers working at consulting firms will look a lot different in 10 years’ time than they do today.

Sleath says that with the workloads expected and the technology coming on stream, the future of the tunnelling sector is “very exciting indeed”.

Career prospects

With the sheer population pressures of the area, much of the tunnelling work that comes up in the UK is focused on London and the surrounding commuter belt – but a decent number of underground schemes emerge elsewhere in the country.

“There are very good prospects in this sector at the moment,” says Lenton.

Tunnel engineer salaries begin at around £23,000 according to careers advice firm CASCAID, and can rise above £50,000 with experience. There is also the opportunity to work up to other roles within a project team or company.  

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