Between 2009 and 2013 the tunnelling and drilling equipment industry witnessed a buoyant 4.9 % annual growth rate, which is likely to continue through to 2018 due to a skyrocketing Asian demand (49% of market shares in 2014). Indeed the market shares of Europe (28%), North America (16.5%), Latin America (6%) and the Middle East (4%) indicate strong needs for tunnels and underground spaces due to rising demography, climate change and urban growth.

To address future challenges, the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA-AITES) is working to attract young engineers into the tunnelling sector. So far, thousands of students and young engineers have demonstrated a strong interest in the tunnelling industry. This has been described as a genuine success for ITA, and a prospect of hope for contracting authorities and tunnelling companies.

Promoting specialised education

In 2009, anxious to bring the tunnelling industry and universities closer, the ITA-AITES launched a special committee on education and training (ITACET) which was to organise and promote a high level education policy among its state members. The same year, the French Tunnelling and Underground Space Association created its own education committee, headed by Richard Kastner, a Professor in geotechnical engineering. "Once the ITACET was created at the international scale, the goal was set to develop contact with universities and specialised schools," he said. "We also decided to invite the whole community of civil engineering students to our three-year congress free of charge, where 350 companies were present. The success was immediate: 400 students participated".

Detecting a nascent demand for specialisation in tunnelling and underground space engineering, six member states of the ITA launched their own Master degree courses: Italy, the UK, France, Spain, Switzerland and the US. Endorsed by the association, they offer students and civil engineers high level innovative programmes, structured with contributions from industry, constructors, companies and engineering firms.

"ITA’s endorsement guarantees the intervention of internationally-known experts and professionals in the courses," ITACET Vice-President Michel Deffayet said. "Beyond our initial detailed review, we also annually follow-up the conformity of the programmes."

Twenty nine year old Sergio Ocampo is a civil engineer specialising in tunnels in Mexico whi has experience of such courses. "All emerging countries like ours, in Latin America, are seeking better tunnel engineers for the development of underground spaces," he said. "They are at the midst of quite serious challenges and they need specific profiles to address it."

Ocampo graduated from the Technological Institute of Monterrey and began his career in a global construction company Ingenieros Civiles Asociados. After two years, the company offered him the opportunity to specialise in tunnelling and underground space construction, through a French postgraduate master degree co-delivered by the French school of Engineering INSA-Lyon and the National College of State Public Works.

"My company discovered this education programme thanks to some French engineers working within the company," Sergio explained. "The Masters was endorsed by the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, which further convinced me to apply for candidacy".

Owing to the increasing demand of member states, the ITACET Foundation and the ITACET Committee have also launched year-round technical training (eight to ten per year). Since 2009, the ITACET’s dynamic training policy has attracted more than 4700 participants, with an average of one hundred attendees per session.

Such popularity aroused the interest of the recently created ITA Young Members’ Committee (ITAYM), in charge of raising the awareness of the tunnelling industry to new generations. "One of our core missions is to provide a technical networking platform for young professionals and students within the ITA," Vice-chair Petr Salak explained. "We sense the growing interest of young people for the industry."

Indeed Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Greece, Norway, South Korea, the UK, the US and Brazil have already launched their national Young Members’ group. Six other countries are also about to imitate them: Belarus, Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and South Africa. ITA Young Members will start cooperation with the ITACET and play an active part in the development of training courses.

"A few months after the Paris Conference for Climate Change, there is something very comforting and reassuring to notice that our youth is keen on getting involved in the construction of state-of-the-art and environmentally-friendly tunnels and underground spaces," Soren Degn Eskesen, President of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association comments. "I have already said how much the engagement of the international community and of public authorities in the anticipation of climate change is fundamental. Yet, nothing is possible without the existence of a high-level and creative community of young engineers who will initiate change through technical innovations. In that matter, ITA considers education and training as the core of its priorities. We are delighted to observe that our efforts are paying off."

The International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association is a non -profit and non-governmental international organisation. Founded in 1974 and operating out of Lausanne, Switzerland, it currently has 73 Member Nations, 300 affiliated members, 17 Prime Sponsors and 60 supporters.