What is your role in your company?
JCK Underground is a newer firm, and our approach is a bit different. We predominately act as the owner’s representative and advise them on how to put together a proposal and preliminary engineering for a project and work from the start throughout the entire duration of a project. We tend to be on call during projects both in the pre-construction and construction phases. Personally, I do a bit of everything including geotechnical analysis; structural tunnel, shaft, and near surface structures design; and constructability review on projects throughout the U.S. In addition, I also teach an engineering course at a community college in California and at a university in Uganda during the summer.
How do students first get interested in this field?
Job sites are the first thing that gets students excited. I’ve heard the same story over and over again – walking on a job site and especially into a tunnel tends to change everything for students. They want to be part of something substantial that creates positive change for the environment, society, and social change. There is a lot of diversity in the discipline, which is what passionate students desire. The underground industry allows you to get a lot of perspective into various fields within the engineering discipline and its impact on society.
It is fascinating being part of something that is the backbone to society, but the general public doesn’t know or think about daily. It is like knowing a secret that no one else is privy to. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but working in this industry is weird and I like weird.
What do you think is appealing to students about this field?
There are a few things. Firstly, how exclusive it is – this generation wants something unique, which underground is. The scale of projects is also truly impressive. These big infrastructure projects tend to involve multiple disciplines while at the same time being out of the public eye since it is underground. Finally, I think students really like how multi-faceted it is, especially dedicated and self-motivated students. They find it fascinating to know a little bit about everything.
What drew you into the underground construction field?
I have always had weird jobs. I like dirt. When I started pursuing engineering, I knew I wanted to do some-thing strange, like underwater inspections or something underground. There was a professor that helped me get in this field and he said he “knew a guy.” And somehow that led me to getting a job in the underground industry. Now I try to do the same for students – I try to connect them to people and opportunities in the industry.
What is your advice for an engineer looking for a field to enter?
The best advice is to seek out opportunities to work for an underground contractor or engineer with intern-ships. Ask your friends, contacts, and professors if they know someone or research if there is an underground job site nearby that you can visit. Just one site visit can introduce you to so many contacts that will facilitate your potential future career. After your site visit, follow up with emails to the people you met. Be proactive in keeping in touch and remember people’s names! So much of it is about connections. Also take a risk and be flexible to work on jobs that require travel and increased hours at the beginning of your career. You will learn so much in the first five years of your career if you just say “yes” to opportunities.
What is it like to work on underground projects?
For me, working on underground projects, although narrow in physical geometry, has opened my world to some of the most strange and unique situations. From hanging from crane baskets 500′ above a dam in Alaska to pushing a blasting charge 500′ underground in the middle of nowhere to working downtown with millions of people walking by, every job is incredibly different with each its own challenges, which require new approaches to situations. I am constantly learning and from my observations and my superiors are constantly learning as well, which is encouraging. This industry is never stagnant. For an inquisitive mind, it is the best for someone who always wants to know and learn more.
In addition, this industry exposes the ins and outs of society that most people don’t know exist. For in-stance, where does your clean water come from, where does your waste go, how does you power get generated, how can I travel from here to there the fastest, and how is wine stored underground to keep the best temperature! It is fascinating being part of something that is the backbone to society, but the general public doesn’t know or think about daily. It is like knowing a secret that no one else is privy to. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but working in this industry is weird and I like weird.