Unified effort to promote underground careers 21 Jan 2021

Paul Schmall, PhD., P.E., UCA Executive Board, Chair of Student Outreach

The underground construction industry internationally is at a crossroads. On one road is ambitious growth with large and complex projects on the horizon. On the other is the need to expand the workforce with professionals who are qualified to meet the increasing demand.

<em>Down For That</em> initiative
Down For That initiative

In an effort to attract future engineers to the industry in the USA, the UCA Underground Construction Association, a division of SME Society of Mining and Metallurgy Exploration in the USA, has created the Down For That initiative, a program that aims to be the definitive connection between the tunneling world and academia – both students and professors. The initiative was mobilised when members of the UCA embarked on a fact-finding mission to understand how to best connect with students.

Three important findings were revealed by the mission:

  • There is very real interest in the underground out there, but no familiarity;
  • The industry has to reach civil engineering students in their junior year before they have settled on a career path; and
  • Professors are a lot more influential than anybody suspected.

A UCA survey of 113 civil engineering college students indicated that the majority learn about career options from their professors. Of the engineering professors, also surveyed, two thirds noted that while they were quite familiar with the underground construction field, they did not have the resources to share with their students. We, the practitioners, need therefore to be proactive in engaging with students in their junior year and bringing resources directly to the professors.

These realizations led to formation of the Down For That initiative, which is spearheaded by the UCA. The intent with this program is simply to be the definitive connection between the underground engineering and construction world and academia – both students and professors.

Five associations combine for a unified approach
Five associations combine for a unified approach

As the definitive connection between tunneling and academia, the Down For That initiative is now a collaborative effort of all of the major players in the USA tunneling industry, each brings something distinctive to the group. The joint effort organisations are:

  • UCA
  • G-I of ASCE, Geo-Institute of American Society of Civil Engineers
  • The Moles
  • The Beavers and
  • DFI, Deep Foundations Institute


The UCA and ASCE joined forces about 5 years ago at a time for a perfect pairing. The UCA is where the bulk of the tunneling expertise resides and ASCE has the connections at every school. The two organisations have jointly hosted small group tours to underground projects and have dispatched speakers for on-campus presentations with the help of Liza Dwyre and Tom Pennington, the successive Chairs of the ASCE Geo-Institute Underground Engineering & Construction Committee. We recognized together that the majority of students were still unaware of the goldmine of opportunity we had prepared for them. It was this that sparked the Down For That initiative.

The Moles

Nobody reaches more students each year than The Moles. Moles Students’ Day gathers civil engineering juniors from more than 20 schools every year for a project tour in and near New York City. The Moles have taken advantage of all major tunneling projects in New York City in the past 10 years and have conducted site tours of the Second Avenue Subway rail project and the soft ground running tunnels in Queens for the East Side Access project and the rock caverns for the rail link platforms underneath Grand Central Terminal.

Several Moles Students’ Day tours visited the East Side Access rail station caverns beneath Grand Central Terminal in New York City
Several Moles Students’ Day tours visited the East Side Access rail station caverns beneath Grand Central Terminal in New York City

It is a significant effort to coordinate a site visit for more than 400 students, but it happens year after year without a glitch. Recently, The Moles replicated the Moles Students’ Day for New England schools and has one virtual Students’ Day in circulation, with several more in production.

But as widely-reaching as The Moles Students’ Day is, it is a one-day per year event. Many professors and Moles believe that the educational potential of Moles Students’ Day could be optimized with additional classroom introduction and post event follow-up.

The Beavers

The Beavers have understood the influence of professors for years. As Executive Director, Dave Woods explained: “When you give out one scholarship, you affect one person. When you put the right person in front of the classroom, you affect many.”

The Beavers look at professors as evangelists. Professors working with The Beavers are experienced professionals. They speak the language. They communicate well with people in the industry and they bring their industry connections to the students. With 18 professor sponsorships for construction programs across the country and another set of scholarships at 46 universities, civil engineering and heavy construction education is being shaped by the generosity of The Beavers. Professors are also involved in determining the award of scholarships, which provides confidence that the money is being well spent.

An enthusiastic group of students tour the Central Subway Chinatown Station works in San Francisco
An enthusiastic group of students tour the Central Subway Chinatown Station works in San Francisco


The newest partner in the Down For That initiative is the DFI and as a most welcome addition. The organization has active working groups and committees, including an active non-profit Educational Trust that manages 19 scholarship funds, which has awarded scholarships to hundreds of students to date. DFI also has a new tunneling working group and its experience will undoubtedly help us to direct scholarships to where they will be most effective.

UCA is currently on an invitation drive to attract initiative assistance and there are a several ways of becoming involved on an individual or company basis.

Liaison with universities

The UCA is currently coordinating liaisons to various universities that will help to get our message in front of the schools on a regular basis. We aim to build relationships with the professors and feed them tunneling information until it becomes part of their regular diet. Most people have at least some relationship with one school or another and can be very effective in maintaining a relationship between the industry and the school.

Volunteer to be a speaker/presenter

The number one thing that all professors want, is industry people to come and show their students what the real world is like. Many are hesitant to give school presentations, thinking such presentations fail to make a difference. Believe me, they do, and the satisfaction of realising this is addictive. To the seasoned practitioner, the most mundane of tunneling projects is a new world of excitement to a college student, never having been exposed to any of it before. In polling university professors, we learned that live, on-campus presentations are what every school wants more of.

A Moles Students’ Day briefing during an East Side Access visit
A Moles Students’ Day briefing during an East Side Access visit

Create professors

We need more tunneling-friendly professors – those that recognize that underground work is a great way to weave exciting real-world examples into their geotechnical, structural or construction curriculum. Matt Evans of Oregon State University said: “Everything is different in the underground design and construction industry. You will see more in one day than others will see in their whole career.” He is a real advocate and a perfect recruit for the Teach the Professors Course that the UCA will host at its NAT tunnelling conference every two years.

Donate teaching resources

Brochures; past project documentations as examples of project schedules, designs, work practices; published books of project development, construction and inauguration; donations of technical text books and more will be gratefully received. By donating such teaching resources, you will get your company materials distributed and provide an opportunity for your company name to become a household name within the schools.

Know of the rewards from career tunnellers

Support an on-site tour

Provide an opportunity for a small group of students to tour an active tunneling project as part of The Tunnel Tours program. Professors report that site tours impress students and open their eyes to the array of problems and challenges that underground construction engineers must resolve safely and effectively every day.

Make available internships and entry level positions

Once their interest is engaged, students will invariably look for more information and their first port of call will be the companies that actively participate in the Down For That initiative. It is important then to post opportunities for internships and entry level employment to the graduating student body. It is encouraging to know that many great interns choose to accept offers of employment with the same company after graduation.

Visit Down For That to know the initiative and developments already in motion. If any resonate with you, reach out to us to explore how you can get involved. We look forward to welcoming you on board!

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