Construction Engineer in Tunnelling

Construction Engineer in Tunnelling – Job Description, Training and Career Prospects

Construction engineers are in demand again. And specialists capable of doing (practically) everything very much so. The following article examines the job description, training and also the career prospects that a tunnelling engineer can expect today.

Only a few years ago it was hard for graduates to find an appropriate job as a construction engineer immediately after finishing their studies. Often jobs as “trainees” were accepted, which in some cases were very badly paid and some then felt forced to quit the construction industry and switched to another profession. Companies going bust, such as Holzmann and WalterBau, a generally poor image and salaries far behind those provided to other academics led to a substantially fewer number of young people choosing to study “construction engineering” in recent years (Fig. 1). Currently according to the Federation of Construction Engineers roughly 4,000 graduates are required by the construction industry and by authorities every year although only 3,200 construction engineering students actually graduate. This lack of graduates has led to a situation where there is now a severe shortage of qualified engineers in all fields of engineering particularly in tunnelling. Some maintain that the fact it is no longer possible to qualify as a “Diplomingenieur” prevents young people from embarking on studying engineering.

New Academic Degrees: the Bologna Process

26 ministers of culture from the countries of Europe decided in Bologna in 1999 that by 2012 all universities and colleges would have to convert their study courses to the consecutive 3-part system (Fig. 2) with the objective of attaining comparable degrees within the EU. This transformation process at seats of learning has largely been achieved in Germany. Now these qualifications are known as:
■ Bachelor, following 6 to 8 semesters of university studies
(Leading to: Bachelor of Science at the universities and Bachelor of Engineering at the colleges and technical universities)
■ Master, following 3 to 4 semesters of university studies
(Leading to: Master of Science at the universities and Master of Engineering at the colleges and technical universities)
■ Doctorate or PhD studies, at least 3 years of full-time studies (only possible at universities).
It was laid down in Bologna that all universities must introduce a quality assurance system in order to be able to secure a minimum level within Europe. All courses of study have to be evaluated and accredited.
It was also decided that individual course units should be evaluated by means of a points system. This system is called the “European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System” (ECTS). Points – known as Credit Points (or CPs for short) – are awarded for a teaching course, which primarily are geared to the duration of the course. Students receive CPs after successfully passing their final examination. The idea behind this system is to make it easier for a student to be able to study at a university in another country for one or several semesters without losing any study time. All CPs acquired at the guest university are to be recognised at the seat of graduation. In addition to the desired higher mobility it is intended to promote international collaboration between universities.
An academic study semester corresponds to 30  CPs, with 1  CP denoting roughly some 20 hours of study (consisting of approx. 40  % lecture hours, 20  % exercises, 15  % project work and 25  % home learning). In other words, students are required to spend about 600 hours tackling their studies.
To qualify as a Bachelor calls for 180 to 240  CPs (5,400 to 7,200 hours), the Master de-gree is possible following a further 90 to 120  CPs (1,800 to 2,400 hours).
In comparison: At Stuttgart’s Hochschule für Technik at least 8 semesters were needed for studying to become a Diplom-ingenieur Bauwesen (FH) prior to the switch. This included 2 semesters devoted to practical studies. It was actually possible to write the diploma thesis during the 8th semester although only around 10  % of students decided to do so. After converting to the “Bologna qualifications” the study period takes 7 semesters including a practical stint lasting for 1 semester. The Bachelor thesis can be written during the 7th semester, something which about 90  % of the graduates take advantage of. The study contents of the Bachelor course correspond to about 96  % of the diploma course of studies. A reduction in the time needed for the course of studies, something desired by the construction industry, was successfully achieved at the HfT Stuttgart through cutting down on the teaching content to a very limited extent.

Construction Engineer in Tunnelling

Training in the field of tunnelling was lent due consideration for the diploma course of studies in Stuttgart and retained for the Bachelor course. The topography of the city of Stuttgart undoubtedly favours this particular sphere of learning as it is situated in a strongly fissured upland landscape possessing a large number of tunnels. In the years ahead the DB AG’s tunnel routes for the Stuttgart21 Project and the Wendlingen-Ulm new line are to be added. This was also a reason why 4 years ago at the HfT Stuttgart a Master’s course for “Foundation Engineering/Tunnelling” was established, so that students could be well equipped for this field of endeavour during their subsequent career.
A special feature of tunnelling is certainly the fact that the clients are mainly authorities and public companies as well as companies, which are largely owned by the state.
As far as private clients are concerned in many cases these are companies, which until recently could also be counted as belonging to the public sector: companies from the power production and energy distribution sector (power station operators, energy suppliers) or firms supplying water or disposing of it).
Road, rail, urban railway and Underground tunnels are generally well known with most people conscious of them. However, the many and above all, long water tunnels in conjunction with power plants or water supply plants are less well known. The many km of accessible sewers are familiar to only a few citizens and very few people have actually seen them. On the surface less and less space is becoming available. Frequently it is actually impossible or undesirable to dig the soil to lay supply or disposal lines on account of local conditions. The growing awareness of environmental considerations on the part of citizens has led to a situation whereby roads and railways are generally only given the go-ahead if at all following protracted and complicated approval proceedings. Deadly sins of urban planning in the past such as the buildings of flyovers and elevated inner urban railways reveal that the way to the third dimension leading upwards is not the desired one and above all not the correct one. The only recourse is to go underground.
The possible range of tasks for the young engineer in tunnelling is extremely diversified. What is sought here are:
■ static-constructive engineers in engineering offices or the technical departments of construction companies,
■ project engineers for analysis or work preparation for construction companies,
■ shift engineers on a tunnel construction site,
■  engineers to monitor construction on a tunnel construction site,
■ project engineers in construction management for an authority or a company from the DB AG rail company or other private or public enterprises.
In engineering offices it usually takes a bit longer until a university graduate with a good knowledge of statics becomes a “tunnel stress analyst” working on his own filling a project manager’s position. One of the reasons for this is that “tunnel stress analysis” differs greatly from the “structural engineering” frequently taught at the universities:
■  in many cases the load assumptions have to be worked out independently,
■ soil parameters are generally only provided with certain variations, so that parameter studies are often required,
■  the structural geometry varies especially for a shotcrete excavation,
■ forming a model is more complex given complicated interaction between the subsoil and structure and
■ “subsoil” as a construction material is frequently difficult to appraise or practically almost incalculable.
Until a static-constructive engineer can carry out static calculations and proofs on his or her own, good further training is imperative either within his or her company and/or from an external source in addition to extensive project experience (Fig. 3). Towards this end the engineer involved in planning will be confronted with a large number of projects during the course of his career – not only at home, which particularly in tunnelling, often catch the public’s attention.
The young engineer can very rapidly attain a position of experience particularly on construction sites. As a shift engineer for instance, he is solely responsible for the excavation within his shift. In conjunction with his foreman, who is usually far more experienced, he has to determine the work needed to be carried out for the drive, whether the means of support are sufficient or can be reduced and is responsible for ensuring that the driving operations receive supplies without a hitch.
All engineers must be extremely flexible especially as far as construction management is concerned. Construction sites are not always located at one’s place of residence. Commuting at the weekend or shifts involving work during the day, at night or over the weekend are part and parcel of the tunneller’s job. Every young engineer must be aware of this when deciding to work for a contractor on a construction site or an engineering office with site monitoring duties. Generally speaking working for a public employer does not involve so much travelling. As the work usually is confined to a restricted area, the chances of being at home every evening are greater. Even although the salary scale is usually somewhat poorer than on the private sector, normally one can work one’s way up very quickly. On account of the reduced number of jobs with authorities and the tendency to outsource planning tasks to engineering offices, there are only a restricted number of intermediate steps on the way to becoming a project manager. Apart from the ability to grasp the situa-tion quickly and negotiate convincingly, it is essential that the project manager is able to evaluate planning processes and duly recognise where deficits could arise. However, the project manager, who cannot devote his or her time to each and every detail at the planning or execution stage, must also possess basic knowledge of tunnel statics and be aware which construction machines are required for defined tasks for excavating a tunnel.
These in some cases very special tasks – and here we are only dealing with a small section of those that are actually required – call for far-ranging, comprehensive and nonetheless detailed training.

University Education in Tunnelling

In the ITA (International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association) the Committee for Education and Training (CET) deals with the fundamental requirements for teaching contents for education in tunnelling at universities. Although national demands are extremely varied the requirements placed on education can also be clearly defined within an international framework.
Should a university lay claim to providing a particular course in tunnelling and wish to obtain an ITA certificate in future, it must at the very least provide the following teaching content.
As the tunnel engineer can usually expect to be involved in international projects, he or she must be at least capable of negotiating in English. Skills such as man management, the ability to communicate and act in a team, adaptability to other mentalities and foreign cultures are required by a manager in tunnelling. These can only be attained during the period of study through processing projects, holding lectures – also in English, and visits to construction sites.
Tunnelling is taught in depth at the following German universities:
■ Ruhruniversität Bochum
Tunnelbau, Leitungsbau und Baubetrieb
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Markus Thewes
contact: ■ Technische Universität Braunschweig
Institut für Grundbau und Bodenmechanik
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Joachim Stahl-mann, IGB TUBS
contact: ■ Universität der Bundeswehr München
Institut für Baubetrieb
Univ.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jürgen Schwarz
contact: ■ Technische Universität München
TUM Zentrum Geotechnik
Univ.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Norbert Vogt
contact: ■ Hochschule für Technik Stuttgart
Masterstudiengang Grundbau/Tunnelbau
Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Fritz Grübl contact:


Should a student decide in favour of tunnelling, he or she must accept that working hours are not always regular and that the place of work is not necessarily just around the corner. However, once completing his/her studies it should not be hard to find a discerning and interesting job with plenty of opportunities for promotion. On account of the great demand for tunnel engineers it seems likely that in future salaries too will be commensurate.

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