While still considered a relative newcomer by some longtime professionals in the underground utility construction market, trenchless technology is a maturing market. In fact, the oldest first cured-in-place pipe project is nearing its 50th birthday, and the International Society for Trenchless Technology passed the 30-year mark in 2016.
The trenchless industry has steadily grown and has continued to drive new innovation to improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Yet, in order for the market to build on that growth, it is imperative to attract, engage and retain the next generation of leaders who will guide the industry for decades to come.
To explore the state of the industry as it relates to the future of the market, we decided to invite a cross-section of young professionals to participate in our annual roundtable discussion.
- Matt Olson, Consultant and NASTT’s Young Professionals Committee
- Matt Smith, Michels Corp.
- Charlie Tripp, Kleinfelder
- Amana Arayan, LMK Technologies
- Brandon Barbera, Barbco Inc.
- Ali Bayat, CETT/University of Alberta
- Rory Ball, Mott MacDonald
- Andrew Farr, Trenchless Technology (Moderator)
Participants weighed in on topics ranging from attracting new talent to the industry to the role of universities and associations. The discussion took place at the Palm Springs Convention Center in Palm Springs, California, March 27 at the No-Dig Show.
How did you get involved in the trenchless industry? What is it about trenchless that you find compelling?
Rory Ball – I was finishing my master’s degree in geotechnical and structural engineering, and I was interviewing at different firms both in consulting and contracting. In talking to the senior professionals, I quickly learned that geo-professionals have the most project influence in tunneling compared to traditional foundation engineering; this steered me toward tunneling and trenchless. Once I started in the industry, I promptly found that the market was gaining momentum and new methods were continually being developed. As a result, there was a need for people to focus on trenchless. So, if you are willing to learn about new methods, and willing to travel and take on more responsibilities, there are a lot of opportunities in the market for a young engineer.
Brandon Barbera – I am a third-generation Barbera at Barbco Inc., which makes auger boring, HDD and pipeline installation equipment. My grandfather, Jim Barbera, started the company, and my dad, Dave Barbera, has spent his career working for the company, so I have been around this scene my entire life. I have enjoyed working in the industry, more so now because new installation methods are continuing to be developed. It keeps things exciting.
Matt Olson – I got involved in trenchless at a young age, as well. My family was involved in the construction business and in the 1990s they started a trenchless division. I worked as a laborer throughout school, and after college I worked on a pilot tube auger boring crew collecting data on jacking forces and comparing the data to existing jacking force equations. It was through this exercise that I learned of Kimberlie Staheli’s work on microtunneling jacking forces. I then worked for Staheli Trenchless Consultants as a consultant on numerous trenchless projects consisting of various trenchless technologies. One of the things I find compelling about trenchless is that it is as much art as engineering. You never know for certain what you’ll encounter on a new pipeline installation. Working redundancies into your design or installation procedure is prudent, and often requires innovation and imagination. That keeps trenchless fresh and exciting.
Charlie Tripp – I first got involved in the trenchless industry about 12 years ago while I was a resident engineer on a sewer rehabilitation project, and I just got hooked. I liked the experience of assessing aged infrastructure and developing an evaluation of applicable trenchless rehabilitation techniques. Ever since then, I have worked on rehabilitation projects all over the Northeast. One of the things I find compelling is that with increased urbanization throughout the country, and infrastructure being harder and harder to access, trenchless is becoming an even more valuable tool.
Matt Smith – I got involved in the trenchless industry through an internship with Michels Corp., and have been there my entire career. I worked in many different areas before settling into microtunneling and more recently Direct Pipe. The thing I find most compelling is solving challenges from the contractor’s point of view. Different challenges arise every day. Every foot of soil is different from the last foot of soil. Solving problems and keeping the trenchless industry moving forward is what keeps me motivated to do what I do.
Amana Arayan – Trenchless technology is not something I dreamed about growing up, but being born and raised in Ottawa, Illinois, I was familiar with LMK Technologies and saw firsthand the positive impact our founder and president, Larry Kiest, had on our community as a business owner and an innovator. So, when an opportunity arose to take on a role with LMK that allowed me to use my background in marketing and provided an opportunity to join a team of innovators, I jumped at the chance. To my surprise, I have actually developed a passion for trenchless technology! Over my seven years in the business, what I’ve found most compelling is that we are all working together, regardless of what technology we supply, towards a better future for our aging infrastructure.
Ali Bayat – When I started at the University of Alberta in 2006 I was involved in the oil and gas industry. Through that I got exposed to directional drilling and found that there was a lack of cohesive information available on HDD design. So, we started developing a software tool for HDD design. It didn’t take long before contractors and consultants around the world were using the tool, which was acquired by Vermeer in 2013. What I like about the industry is that it is still relatively niche and people all know each other. You are able to interact with everybody, including consultants, contractors and suppliers.
Is the market different than you expected? What is good? What could be improved?
Ball – I have been amazed as I have learned about the industry with how nomadic many contractors are, particularly those involved with HDD, microtunneling and Direct Pipe. They are chasing projects all across North America and this mainly due to the fact that there are very few markets that can support back-to-back-to-back projects for these contractors. As a result, they go where the jobs are. The positive thing for the industry is these traveling contractors have vast experience and know how to build in different geologies using different techniques, including curved microtunnels, which are more commonplace now in the United States. As an industry, we need to continue to find cost-effective learning opportunities for owners in all sectors to help them realize what risk mitigation strategies lead to the most successful projects. Any number of factors can lead to a bad project – whether it be poor designs by inexperienced consultants, construction managers not effectively implementing risk mitigation requirements, or contractors who are taking shortcuts to try to make up for profit in a low bid environment – and a bad project could turn off an inexperienced owner from pursuing trenchless in the future.
Olson – When I started as a consultant I was eager to be involved with many different trenchless technologies by gaining field experience on first-class projects. After four years of consulting, I was surprised that I had gained experience in many new installation technologies as well as several rehabilitation projects. I was astonished to see how many different technologies are being used and how strong the trenchless market is right now. One thing that may be limiting the market is requirements to meet outdated or conflicting permit regulations. Outdated regulations may not allow for current state-of-the-practice trenchless construction techniques, increasing the project’s risk profile. In instances such as this, or when regulations from different permitting agencies conflict, it is imperative that an open-minded review of these regulations be conducted by all parties so the project at hand can be constructed with the lowest risk profile possible.
Tripp – I wasn’t privy to the trenchless construction market as I was coming out of college, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Having been in the market now, it seems like it is evolving and it is a great market to be in. I have really grown to appreciate the people in the trenchless market. They are super talented and super intelligent, and although it is a good-sized organization, once you are in it, it feels like family. I feel like everybody knows each other and everybody helps each other and gives guidance on different techniques. One thing that could be improved is industry exposure among college students. It has begun to happen, to a degree now, with student chapters of NASTT, and I hope to see it continue to advance.
Smith – One thing that surprised me about the market is a lack of contractors available that provide a full suite of solutions. You have contractors that are very good at auger boring, HDD or microtunneling, for example, but there are only a few of us who are able to provide the best trenchless method to solve a range of problems. One trend I am seeing is more collaboration between engineers and contractors early on in trenchless installations, which is a good thing. We see that particularly on design-build and P3 contracts, but also on design-bid-build.
For the market to grow, we need to develop skilled workers. I focus a lot of my time on developing young people who want to be in the trades. The trades are declining in popularity, but the future of the trenchless industry is going to rely on the next generation being able to build quality projects. You can design and manage projects all you want, but if there is no one there to build them, then that is going to be a problem.
Arayan – From my perspective as a technology provider and manufacturer, one thing I found surprising was that the trenchless industry – particularly the CIPP and rehabilitation sector – seems to be recession-proof. The decline of the housing market affected many industries, but it minimally affected ours. In fact, LMK still had increased revenues despite the downturn in the general economy. However, there is still room for growth. Part of my job that I love is to help expand awareness about the multiple benefits of all the innovative trenchless technologies—saving communities money and building long-lasting infrastructure that will serve them for years to come. As that awareness grows, I believe the market will continue to expand.
Bayat – The underground is becoming more and more crowded and, as a result, it is more and more challenging to build and repair underground infrastructure. And as new technologies come out all the time, the key challenge becomes making sure that knowledge keeps pace with technology development. In the formal education systems, for example, students don’t get much of an opportunity to learn trenchless, much less the latest in trenchless. Student chapters and scholarships to attend the No-Dig Show definitely help steer students toward the industry, but we need to think deeper in order to reach mainstream students and show them everything that is happening in this dynamic industry.
In your opinion, how receptive is the market to new ideas and new technology? It seems that municipal water and sewer systems have traditionally been on the conservative side.
Ball – New methods have been rapidly expanding, especially in the private sector where energy companies with performance-based requirements allow contractors more flexibility. Traditional municipal owners, though, are balancing the needs and demands of stakeholders both internal and external to their organization. The consideration of risk to each stakeholder is important to understand. For example, if a contractor strikes a fiber-optic line, the costs for loss of service add up significantly. So, the perception has been that municipalities take a more conservative approach, but we have seen that many of our clients are receptive to value-engineering proposals after the award of a contract. This has provided opportunities for our clients to use new technologies that they might have been reluctant to use initially as part of the base bid. It comes down to a balancing act between risk and reward for when to use new technology.
Barbera – From the manufacturer’s viewpoint, we see that it takes some time for new products to gain acceptance. We have a test site on our facility so we are able to invite contractors in to see and use the equipment firsthand, and we get feedback from them on what works and what doesn’t. So, it is a collaborative process that takes some time to develop. We find that the contractors are willing to use new technology if it helps them solve a particular problem.
Olson – My experience is that municipalities are generally eager to use the lowest risk installation method on their job. The trick is finding a way to increase their confidence with lesser known or newer technologies that may not have had much of a track record. On what Ali was saying, our knowledge and understanding of trenchless technologies has to grow at the same rate as their advancement. Perhaps this is an opportunity for universities to get involved with the manufacturers, contractors and engineers to help increase our knowledge base for newer techniques and provide greater confidence to municipalities.
Tripp – I am based in New England, which historically has been conservative when it comes to trenchless construction techniques. City and Town Engineers sometimes can be hesitant to try new technologies. That reluctance is often rooted in the feeling that they don’t want to be the “guinea pig.” But what I have seen recently, which is encouraging, is that some younger engineers are leaving consulting and making their way into the municipal field. With a younger base in the municipal realm, I think it’s a little more likely that they will adopt a trenchless technology or try it within a construction project.
Smith – The key to clients using new technology comes down to how it adds value to their project. On the oil and gas side, owners seem to be more receptive to new technology, but it is also easier from a contractor’s point of view to demonstrate the value added compared to the municipal water and sewer side. If contractors and manufacturers can prove the value added, then I think the municipalities will be receptive. In the end, people want the best, safest and lowest risk way to complete a quality project.
Arayan – The market is changing. I see a younger generation starting to move into decision-making roles with more of an open mindset. And some of the more seasoned utility managers are more open to innovative approaches too. In our role as a technology provider, we need to continue to show that these technologies are viable and long-lasting. The market is still growing and evolving, and it is extremely important for all of us—technology providers, engineers, government agencies, and contractors—to keep up with what’s possible. It is our job as industry professionals to advocate and promote the latest and proven trenchless technologies through different educational avenues. Some municipalities have been burned in the past through mis-marketing, and that makes it more difficult for an emerging technology to gain acceptance. We need to collectively maintain a positive image, and that will go a long way to expanding opportunities for everyone.
Bayat – What makes underground work so interesting is the risk. In a typical building project, your contingency may be 5 percent. We have studied around 100 HDD projects and found that the average contingency approaches 50 percent. There were jobs completed with minimal impact, but there were also jobs where things went wrong and they ended up 200 to 300 percent over. As a municipal engineer, it is difficult to get a $1 million project approved, and it is even more difficult knowing that it is likely to cost another $500,000 more. It comes down to how comfortable an organization is in mitigating or sharing the risks. So, the more we know about technologies, the less risk and the more likely that people will be receptive to using them.
Tripp – One way to help municipalities ease into using a new technology is through a demonstration or pilot project. That allows public works staff a chance to see firsthand, and free of charge, how the technology works. Oftentimes, they will like what they see and move forward with the project.
Smith – It is in the industry’s best interest to provide the best solution for the project whether that means a new technology or not pushing a new technology into a place where it doesn’t belong. Sometimes new technology isn’t the best option and the old option is better. At the end of the day we need to get the product in place and at the quality level the owner wants regardless of what that method is. That is where our mindset needs to be.
How can the industry leverage new technologies to attract millennials? How can the younger generation help incorporate new technology to the industry?
Ball – We can market the industry using exciting videos shot from drones or using 360-degree visualizations from 3D renderings and real 360-degree photos; this creates a “wow factor” for all ages. Combining this media with short interview videos of people involved in the trenchless industry from all aspects of consulting, marketing and contracting can provide millennials insight into what it is like to be involved with the trenchless industry. That is important because trenchless is not something you get exposed to at the university level. It is hard to really get a sense of the community and the cool things going on in this industry until you are involved in it; so we need to highlight those aspects as best we can.
Barbera – The visualization is really cool, but I find that being on an actual jobsite really drives it home for me. I think it would help attract people to the industry if we can get more young people out to demonstrations so they can see the equipment in operation. At Barbco, we do host events in which we invite people to attend, but typically those who attend are locals who are already involved in the market.
Olson – The Young Professionals Committee is working on setting up field visits to help engage millennials and educate them on trenchless technology, but there are a lot of moving parts and financial hurdles that need to be cleared. The committee is also working to bridge the gap between students, young professionals and industry veterans. There is a lot of value in that because we can all benefit from a transfer of knowledge between generations. At No-Dig this year we provided guided tours of the exhibit hall for students, including interviews with exhibitors, which Amana mentioned earlier. We also encouraged committee members to reach out to students and make sure they are engaged and to answer any questions they may have about trenchless technology or what working in this industry is like. If the students are engaged I have little doubt trenchless technology will impress them.
Tripp – To quote the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it they will come.” That is kind of the way it has been with the Northeast chapter. We started a new student chapter at UMass-Lowell, and we have hosted regional seminars in which a multitude of students have gotten involved. We have even gone as far as looking to schedule field visits between the students and real-life projects to see trenchless construction in action. The Student Chapter involvement is still in its infancy, but it has been a great program so far.
Smith – Technology can do some amazing things in terms of boosting careers faster than we have ever seen in the past. I was recently working on a pullback project in downtown Victoria on Vancouver Island that was very dynamic. Our team was able to create a 3-D rendering that helped show how the pullback would happen. With that, you don’t need 20 years of experience to visualize the project, all you need is an iPad. That helps sell the technology to owners, as well as show what the industry is all about for those who may not be familiar.
Arayan – There is so much opportunity now within the industry, and our infrastructure is not getting any younger. Many millennials are intrigued by technology, and we need to further educate them on how advanced and forward-thinking our industry really is. Our industry isn’t as visible as some others, so it’s up to us to make sure they appreciate not just the technological advancement, but the larger role sound infrastructure plays in protecting the environment and public health.
Bayat –This industry does a lot to bring students to the No-Dig Show. There are 140 students here, which is great. But with that many students here perhaps there is something more that we could be doing to engage them. Maybe we could have a short course or an education track for students. If they are coming all the way here, we need to make sure that they are learning and making the most of the opportunity.
What is the state of workforce development from your perspective? What efforts are afoot to attract more young professionals into the market? What else can we do?
Ball – Hiring experienced trenchless engineers is difficult, very difficult, yet there is a need for engineers who have the chops to design constructible solutions; who have a balance of field work, jobsite and office experience; who can communicate well with owners, contractors and stakeholders; and who can also mentor young staff. Contractors consistently say finding qualified individuals who are willing to travel is difficult. So, young professionals need to realize that there is a tremendous amount of opportunity available in the trenchless market. At the same time, on the design side, they should realize they are going to be under significant market pressures that will affect them throughout their entire career. Trenchless projects are often faster-paced using smaller teams. This industry will continue to provide amazing opportunities and allow for advancement at a younger age if you are willing to put in the work.
Olson – We are doing a good job pulling students into No-Dig; we are up about 20 percent to 140 students this year. The key will be finding the good students and engaging them so they want to become more involved in this industry. Keeping them engaged involves the young professionals, as well as the industry veterans, reaching out to them. We can all do a better job of talking to the students just by making an effort to go outside of our box a bit to make a connection. Plus, there is always something that we can learn from the younger generation.
Smith – We as young professionals have a responsibility that once we have new people in the workforce we need to display the passion that drove us to be where we are today. We need to continue to take them under our wing as we are progressing in our careers. As we get busier and busier, it can be easy to lose sight of helping the younger, newer employees. I think it is important that every one of us takes the time to mentor the next person who will take over our job.
Arayan – We find ourselves in a unique situation where we are struggling to find qualified workers in our industry. We need to develop a program that educates the younger generation so that they can join the team and provide valuable service to our industry. Contractors, technology providers, engineering firms, and municipalities—we’re all looking for talent, so there are a lot of great career opportunities. We are seeing more universities focus on trenchless technology education, so that helps awareness that our industry exists, thrives and is here to stay. Our underground utilities are not fixing themselves!
What role do universities play in attracting the next generation? What about industry associations?
Bayat – Recruiting the next generation comprises two parts. This first is getting their attention. Once we have their attention, we need to make sure that we have a program in place where they can develop into the caliber of person who can make an impact rather than just be an employee. In the past, we have done a good job at the university level of working with the industry and developing student chapters, but we need to think deeper so that we have a way of bringing all the technologies and different groups of people together so that we can progress as an industry.
Ball – One of the disconnects I see with some of the younger people coming out of university is that they tend to look at projects as new installation or rehabilitation, whereas they should be thinking about trenchless as a Swiss army knife with many different tools available. It would be beneficial if there was more coursework available for trenchless beyond introductory courses so the students could get a grander understanding of what is available to help the client find the best solution. However, internship experience is still one of the best options.
Olson – When I did post-graduate work at Arizona State with Dr. Sam Ariaratnam and Dr. Jason Lueke they encouraged me to read as many No-Dig papers as possible. I also poured through countless trenchless journal papers. Reading these papers educated me on trenchless technology and grew my interest in the industry. The resources available to students at universities are close to unmatched. Spawning an interest at this time can be tremendously advantageous for that reason alone.
Tripp – Oftentimes, in my experience, there has not been much available in terms of trenchless as part of an undergraduate degree because there are so many fundamental courses that you need for a degree like civil engineering, for example. Bachelor level degrees are governed by ABET accredited curriculums, and due to that set curriculum, there is not much room for advanced courses. So, having courses related to trenchless available at the graduate level would be key to drawing people into the industry.
Smith – We need to have students come out with an open mind and have the fundamentals. Further, they need to be able to read extremely well and speak extremely well. You can have a civil engineering degree, but if you can’t communicate your thoughts and speak to the teams around you – clients, owners, contractors – it doesn’t do a lot of good. I look at university more as a time to learn how to learn, so when you come into the industry you are already prepared to learn. You don’t necessarily need to have all the industry knowledge immediately.
Olson – We have been talking about attracting students at the university level but we need to attract high schoolers as well because not everyone wants to pursue a college degree. We need to ensure that people entering the trades are aware of trenchless construction while they are still in school or they may gravitate toward a different industry. There are many good jobs available for highly qualified operators operating specialized equipment in the trenchless industry. That’s a message we need to get across at a young age.
Arayan – Universities and industry associations are broadening their offerings and targeting the next generation by creating a platform for specialized training in a specialized field. NASTT encourages bridging the generational gap through their educational and networking efforts. For example, the annual No-Dig Conference includes high-level technical sessions with speakers from all different educational backgrounds and levels of experience, student volunteer involvement and the Young Professionals Committee.