Paul Madsen

Senior Project Manager

What do you do in the underground construction industry, and how long have you been in the industry?

I am a project manager with an underground contractor and have been in this industry for 28 years.

How did you get into the industry, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?

A family friend in the hard-rock mining industry first got me interested in rock mechanics. After I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Denmark and Scotland, respectively, I applied for a local job in Denmark as an entry-level geotechnical engineer. This “local project” just happened to be the prominent Storebaelt tunnel project, which is a deep and long subaqueous tunneling project directly beneath the Storebaelt crossing in Denmark. You might say that my decision to pursue this as a career stemmed from getting an offer for a job for which I was paid (!), but I had essentially stepped into a huge career opportunity… it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime projects.

What has been your career trajectory since then?

Storebaelt was the perfect playground on which to start a career. There were opportunities to work with the operating parameters for earth pressure balance (EPB) machines when that technology was relatively new. We used compressed air to hold back the groundwater to observe the geology in front of the tunnel-boring machine (TBM). It was probably one of the first instances of the use of ground freezing to allow the hand mining of cross passages between the tunnels. The tunnel was so deep that we actually installed deep wells through the ocean floor to reduce the groundwater pressures on the TBM.

I learned a lot. After that project, I followed some of the Kiewit people from Storebaelt back to the United States for a sequential excavation method (SEM) tunneling project in Washington, D.C. I have never looked back. I have traversed back and forth across the country to work on landmark projects. Each one has been significantly different, never easy, but has always contributed to my career, and as the projects rarely are at the same geographical location, it provides the opportunity to work at different locations in the country. It is never boring!

What professional achievements have defined you, and what are some of the lessons learned?

Every project that I have worked on, regardless of size, has defined who I am today, and serving as Chair of the organizing committee of the George A. Fox Conference in New York, NY, in January 2020 was a great honor.

Looking back, it worked for me to dive into the technical and hands-on aspects of our industry early in my career, building a foundation of technical and practical knowledge. I followed that by adding operational management to my skill set, learning about cost and production factors. I have filled the role of project manager as well – nothing requires more problem-solving skills than to manage a big tunneling project. I have used that knowledge to estimate and pursue new projects for the company. It does not end there. New aspects of the business open up constantly, including spending time with industry associations outside of the company.

What has been most rewarding for me has been seeing young engineers succeed and develop, especially if I had a little bit to do with their success.

What fascinates you most about the industry?

From a technical aspect, there is no purer form of geotechnical engineering than tunneling. Being below ground and observing how it behaves is unparalleled.

What is your advice to a student looking to enter the underground field?

Do it! There are abundant opportunities to learn and develop a very interesting career.

The underground business is a relatively small industry in the United States. You build professional relationships with colleagues, joint-venture partners, subcontractors, design engineers, suppliers and project owners throughout your career. After a while and over time, you realize that they are becoming more like a family. It gives you a huge sense of belonging, opportunities, and support when needed.


Any final nuggets of wisdom for those who are just starting out?

I think it is hugely important that young engineers get to spend time on the actual work early in their career… ideally, in the first five to 10 years, even if they want to pursue a career in the field of engineering and design. There is no substitute for real-life experience.