By any definition, geotechnical engineering is a strong, in-demand field with some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. In fact, both civil engineering and environmental engineering are regarded as two of the best jobs in America and have unemployment rates below 1%. This indicates remarkable industry strength, but what are the driving forces behind it? The answer is that projects are not slowing down, demanding geotechnical engineers in four distinct areas.
Building near water presents a number of challenges that geotechnical engineers must overcome. Consider that erosion alone is responsible for $500 million per year in property loss, damage to structures, and loss of land, and the importance of engineering is clear. Riparian erosion, or the loss of coastal vegetation, adds even more to that figure.
To make construction near coasts possible, geotechnical engineers are innovating. They’re developing modeling frameworks that identify zones that are at-risk of becoming unstable. They’re calculating flood levels, evaluating elevations, monitoring high wind speeds, determining the right foundation materials for the soil, and much more. All this helps achieve a successful project that passes stringent regulations.
The examples of ongoing coastal and riparian construction projects are many. In Florida, one construction firm alone has 11 ongoing projects representing nine million square feet of space once completed. Multiply that by the number of firms building up and down the East and West Coasts, and it adds up to a lot of demand for geotechnical engineers.
Projects in commercial construction are often the ones that make the biggest headlines, and for good reason. These are often huge undertakings that require a large number of people and strong financial backing. Geotechnical engineers play a crucial role in these projects. Given how large these projects can become, ground stability is a top concern when planning and constructing the foundation.
One of the most notable recently completed commercial projects is New Jersey’s $6 billion American Dream Meadowlands mall. It was in the works for decades and now represents a remarkable feat as one of the biggest malls in the world. Also making headlines are a number of high-profile sports arenas with big price tags. These include a $2.4 billion NFL stadium in Las Vegas, a $1.5 billion arena for the New York Islanders, and a $5 billion L.A. NFL stadium set to host the 2022 Super Bowl and 2028 Olympics.
Adding to this sector’s activity, hotel construction hit a record high in 2020 with 214,704 hotel rooms under construction. Grocery stores continue to rapidly expand, with Aldi opening 70 stores this year and on track to become America’s third largest supermarket. There are many more examples of new construction and, combined with the billions being spent on renovations and maintenance, it’s easy to see the importance the commercial side of the industry. By analyzing the soil and anticipating how the ground shifts, geotechnical engineers are tasked with getting new projects safely off the ground and stabilizing existing buildings for the long term.
Without geotechnical engineers, it would be difficult for the energy sector to keep up the important work of maintaining and increasing the delivery of energy across the country. For example, power substations cannot be built without important work in the early stages of a project such as establishing the work zone, preparing the site, excavating, laying foundations, and installing a grounding grid.
Geotechnical engineers are also pivotal in stabilizing the soil and foundation of transmission towers that deliver electricity across cities and remote terrain. Furthermore, there are still many overhead powerlines in the country that are being moved below ground. This is important in storm zones where high winds can knock out power for large numbers of people, and it’s not possible without experts who have experience building on different soils. It’s a project that can be a challenge, as seen in Boston’s “Big Dig” project which moved 29 miles of underground utility lines.
Then there are the oil and gas pipelines that can become dangerous if they’re not built and maintained appropriately. Even a minor fix requires geotechnical engineers to consider many factors that go into determining the right repair method, including analyzing seam/girth welds, investigating leaks, planning a diversion, choosing the materials, and understanding local regulations. Minnesota’s $2.9 billion Line 3 project is a notable example as it seeks to replace hundreds of miles of a 1960s’ pipeline.
Roads, bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure projects keep people connected and allow the transportation of important goods, but they wouldn’t be possible without engineers. For instance, construction to replace Virginia’s 17-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel has been ongoing but is facing delays after encountering granite boulders. The $800 million project now hinges on geotechnical engineers who must plan the safe usage of a large boring machine.
Northern California finally kicked off a $15.9 billion water tunnel project that relies on engineers to monitor the nearby ecosystem, determine which pumps are required, and conduct vital core sampling. Not far away, San Francisco is redoing part of their $52 million tunnel project only two years after completing it. The reason for this is that the decision was made to reuse rather than replace ballast against the direction of the geotechnical engineers on the original project. It’s a costly error that could have been avoided by relying on the expertise of those professionals.
Another notable project is the Brent Spence Bridge on the border of Ohio and Kentucky. Opened in 1963, it was designed to carry 80,000 vehicles per day but now carries double that and is experiencing a number of issues. A new $2.6 billion plan for a more stable structure is in the works, one that can handle the traffic and weight required of the region. Combine this with the $4.4 billion international bridge between Detroit and Canada, and there’s no slowdown in sight for talented geotechnical engineers who do critical work on projects like these.
Throughout the country, geotechnical engineers help construction projects safely begin and efficiently reach conclusion. The areas of coastal, commercial, energy, and infrastructure construction are seeing the most activity in the industry, and that’s why they’re hiring so many geotechnical engineers. As projects like these continue, the industry unemployment rate will stay low and the demand for these professionals will stay strong.