Craig Vandaelle and coworker

2024 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year – Craig Vandaelle

Craig Vandaelle loves trenchless technology. He lives and breathes it.

It’s as simple as that.

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Over the course of his 20-plus-year career, Vandaelle has worn many trenchless hats. He’s been a draftsman, an inspector, a project manager, an executive, industry advocate, mentor and an educator. He has volunteered countless hours and many years helping to shape the current and future states of the trenchless industry by his work on projects and his volunteerism and advocacy through trenchless associations.

Craig Vandaelle is the 2024 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year. Being recognized by his peers for a career and an industry he is passionate about, overwhelms Vandaelle, as he processed his selection. “Having time to reflect on all of this, I am still speechless and [it’s] surprising to me,” he says. “I’m so appreciative of this recognition. To have this recognition bestowed on me by my peers is truly an honor.”

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Hearing Vandaelle talk about the trenchless industry and the path that led him to it, you can hear the love for what he does in the words he uses and stories he shares, marveling that he gets to work in this multi-billion dollar global industry. The “What’s next” optimism of the technology and tools used, as well as the advances in the new installation and rehabilitation markets creates a daily energy jolt for him as he takes on the next challenge of how trenchless applications will be used in the future. The longer lengths, the larger diameters and the new avenues of use for trenchless methodologies spur the drive in Vandaelle.

“That’s what really drives my love for trenchless. A lot of times we are doing things that haven’t been done very often or haven’t been done this way at all — it’s having the ability to be innovative and come up with solutions and work in a collaborative environment that really drives me.”

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Craig Vandaelle

Getting Started

Born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Vandaelle attended technical school after high school, taking drafting classes. He joined the firm Bennett Staheli Engineers in Sacramento, California, in 1998 — led by its principals, trenchless leaders David Bennett and Kim Staheli — starting out doing drafting work before moving to field inspections for microtunneling and HDD projects. This experience proved to be the catalyst in Vandaelle’s move into the trenchless technology arena.

“My real introduction to trenchless came from two industry icons in Dave [Bennett] and Kim [Staheli]. I attribute my base and core fundamentals back to having worked directly for them,” Vandaelle reflects. “I was blessed early on in my career to be surrounded by them and really be a fly on the wall, listening more than anything else as to the projects they were on and what they were going through and how to solve problems.”

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After four years, he left Bennett Staheli Engineers to join Wood Rodgers engineering firm in Sacramento, handling most of its trenchless design work, as well as managing a small construction management group, which handled a lot of heavy civil and land development-based work that featured trenchless components. During his time at the firm, Vandaelle decided to further his education and he earned his construction management certificate at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis), accomplishing this by going to school at night while working full time during the day.

After eight years with Wood Rogers, he joined trenchless contractor Michels Corp. — a move that catapulted Vandaelle into the trenchless stratosphere. He started out as a project manager and later became a general manager and then ran its tunnel businesses in Canada and the United States. Today, Vandaelle serves as Michels vice president of preconstruction services, a position that allows him to work in both the new installation and rehabilitation sectors. “My role now is to evaluate the opportunities in the trenchless market and secure the right projects that are the best fits for Michels — for both new installation and rehabilitation markets,” he says.

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Vandaelle works closely with the field operations teams, including the superintendents and forepersons — an area in the industry that he found to be his true calling, starting back with his time at Bennett Staheli Engineering when he worked as a field inspector. “Through the experience of doing that, I found myself drawn to the field side, the problem solving that takes place in the field after the design [aspect] was done. That really intrigued me and became my calling,” he says.

Having been in the trenchless technology sphere for more than 20 years, Vandaelle has witnessed the metamorphosis of this industry — moving from an emerging form of construction to a mature, accepted and expanding one. Owners are more educated about the technology, applications and their benefits. What were once limited opportunities are now standard and commonplace usage. “When I came in, trenchless technology was still in its infancy,” Vandaelle says of the early 2000s. “It was a time period where it was the shiny, new object and there were a lot of great projects going on, but a lot of the industry knowledge was just getting developed. The knowledge and education were really just starting to adapt and flourish at that time.”

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When Vandaelle entered the trenchless construction sector 20-plus years ago, the relationships between owner, engineer and contractor were also different and the design process resembled an us vs. them mentality, he says. Collaboration between the contractor, engineer and owner was limited and everyone stayed in their own lanes, so to speak.

“When I started out, the roles were very siloed,” he says. “Over the last 10 years, you’ve started to see that blend more. The last five years, it’s been a collaborative process where the contractor is getting more involved earlier on with projects. We now provide input to the owners and engineers in the development phase or through the design-build methodology. I really think that helps to define a project and provide risk mitigation early in the process. It has led to great success stories in the industry. Projects need everyone pulling in the same direction. You need the contractor, the owner and the engineer to be on the same page. Where it used to be an us-versus-them relationship, in my opinion, it is now a ‘we’ relationship.”

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Craig Vandaelle

Vandaelle’s Passion for Trenchless

He credits joining Michels for fueling his passion for the entire construction process in both rehabilitation and new construction. His prior experience was dominated from the design and owners’ side. Coming to Michels, added the third piece of the construction triangle: contractor. “Coming to Michels gave me another perspective. I knew what the design element was. I knew what the owner element was and now I have that construction piece from the contractor’s perspective,” Vandaelle says.

He says working at Michels allowed him the opportunity to learn trenchless and managing trenchless projects at the hands of so many industry stalwarts, naming Bob Westphal, Tim McGuire, Mike Prior and Pat and Phillip Michels, to name a few. “All these great trenchless people who are[/were] at Michels, both on the rehabilitation and new installation side, really allowed me to expand my base knowledge. I’m so blessed for the opportunities that I have been provided and to have worked with so many great industry icons,” Vandaelle says.

Vandaelle shares so many examples of learning from the best of the trenchless industry and how those interactions and relationships impacted his professional life, whether it’s solving an issue on a project site or in the design phase. Those experiences have stayed with him and shaped him to become the trenchless professional he is today. Those mentoring experiences have also powered Vandaelle to reciprocate that role with today’s up-and-coming trenchless technologists, as well as the generation to follow. “The best thing I can do is to pass on what I have learned to the next generation of co-workers. It’s a gift I have been given,” he says.

Mentoring for Vandaelle comes in various forms, most notably through his volunteerism and efforts in industry associations, such the North American Society of Trenchless Technology (NASTT). He got his start in NASTT about 10 years into his trenchless career in 2010 when Mike Prior asked him to present a paper at the Northwest Chapter’s No-Dig Show.

Hesitant at first, he embraced the challenge and, to his surprise, discovered how gratifying the experience was — Vandaelle wanted to do more. He says the presentation also came at a time for him when he trying to figure out how he could become an active participant in shaping the industry he had grown to love. He joined the NW Chapter board and soon after was elected to the NASTT national board of directors. He served as NASTT chair from 2019-2021, during the start and height of the COVID pandemic, leading the organization to new heights. He also serves as a committee member to ISTT. He leads various trenchless webinars, panel discussions and Good Practices courses.

Vandaelle notes how the experience of becoming an advocate and voice for the trenchless industry has been invaluable, opening his mind to other aspects of trenchless beyond to what he does every day. “I have a better understanding of the trenchless industry because I got exposed to more of it,” he says. “That has been really cool to see how the industry internally communicates with itself. My time on the NASTT board has opened my eyes to the whole industry, which is difficult to do in our normal 9-5 jobs, where we are primarily focused on one area. Volunteering or becoming part of the NASTT board or any other association, gives you that much more exposure and appreciation to the industry.”

And then there is one-on-one mentoring that Vandaelle takes pride in while doing his job — elevating the next generation of trenchless professionals and getting them excited about the world of trenchless. He notes how different the trenchless industry is for the next generation coming up, as they are not starting from scratch but have history to lean on, successful projects to build from and advanced technology to push boundaries. “The execution and applications have been proven and we now are seeing an industry start to mature and really develop and refine. It’s really exciting,” he says.

Beyond all the new technology that the younger generation is brought up on (most of which wasn’t even inventing when he started his career), Vandaelle is huge proponent of this next generation getting out from behind their laptops and swapping their casual attire for hard hats and boots. Getting a visual on the projects they are working on will not only help them grow as a professional but also widen their outlook of the industry. “My advice to the next generation is don’t forget to get out and smell the roses — get out to the field,” he says. “You learn so much from seeing contractors execute the work. No amount of book or classroom time is going to replace that. I don’t think there is enough emphasis on what that provides.”

He also emphasizes two pieces of advice he embraced early on: Listen, more than you speak and respect the knowledge and experience of the industry veterans. “It’s amazing the trust you can build by respecting and listening to the people around the table and their years of experience,” Vandaelle says. “A mistake that young project managers make is that they think they have to have all the answers and they don’t. They need to ask the right questions. Listening more than you speak can gain you so much more knowledge.”

Beyond Trenchless

Vandaelle says as committed and zealous as he is to the trenchless work he does, his downtime is just as important to recharge and enjoy a full life. He and his wife, Stephanie, enjoy traveling and relaxing around the pool in the Wisconsin summers. To unwind, Vandaelle likes to hit the links. He is a tremendous hockey and football fan. Spending time as a family, with his son, Riley, is also so important to Vandaelle.

“Stephanie does the hard work that allows me to do what I do,” Vandaelle says. “Without her and her support, taking care of things at home, so I can focus on work — that’s a big responsibility.”

Craig wants to thank Trenchless Technology for this incredible honor along with Pat and Phillip Michels, Matt Smith, and Matthew Spokely for believing in him, challenging him and for providing him the opportunity and support to grow within this industry.

Sharon M. Bueno is the editor of Trenchless Technology.

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