Geotechnical engineers are skilled interpreters of the Earth’s surface and below. They specialise in understanding and predicting the behaviour of the ground, so that buildings, roads, bridges, etc. are built safely, sustainably and in accordance with current standards.
Everything is built into the ground; therefore, a geotechnical engineer must gain a deep understanding of the ground behaviour and its interaction with the proposed structures by observing, sampling, testing in the field and in laboratories, analyzing and modelling.
Is there a demand for geotechnical engineers?
In short, yes. According to Job Outlook, the number of Geotechnical Engineers in Australia between 2011 and 2016, grew strongly from 1,300 in 2011 to 1,500 in 2016.
Key drivers of this demand include:
|Key drivers of this demand include:
|1. Increase in population
|2. Impact of climate change
|3. Increased complexity of projects
|4. Effect of recent border closure in Australia
1. Population growth
Australia’s population has increased by one third in the last 20 years. While the rate of growth took a sharp downward turn during the almost two-year border closure due to COVID-19, the population still grew by 0.3% (Australian Bureau of Statistics) and is predicted to steadily increase.
So, what is the impact of population growth? Well, it means more roads, buildings, apartments, and transport infrastructure. Each of these are likely to involve geotechnical engineering support in all stages of the design of structures, from concept to construction. They must determine whether the ground can withstand the added pressures or changes brought by construction, which can avoid costly issues further into the project.
World population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 (as of April 2022 it is approximately 7.9 billion). To ensure enough resources are available to sustain this population growth, a big focus on building cities for a greener future has gained significant momentum. This trend will increase projects like building infrastructure for alternative energy supplies, food production and land development.
2. Climate change and natural disasters
Climate change has wide-ranging ramifications, from rising sea levels and air temperatures, to changes in patterns of precipitation, declines in snow-cover, permafrost, and sea-ice, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events (like floods and droughts). More specifically to the ground in Australia, groundwater levels are changing and some soil behaviours, like the seasonal swelling and shrinking of reactive clays that controls the design of the footing systems of all residential buildings, are magnified. As climate impacts and mitigations become more apparent, the role of geotechnics, including civil and environmental engineering will also increase.
In Australia, both floods and bushfires are a significant climate concern. The flooding event that occurred due to intense rainfall across Southeast QLD and Northern NSW in late February 2022 is a key example of this. The impact on the ground saturated by water, may cause dangerous destabilisation in some areas.
To rebuild after a crisis such as this often requires geotechnical engineering investigations to assess the land and ensure that re-building structures can be done safely.
In the context of mitigating the impacts of climate disasters, Geotechnical Engineers contribute to the development of renewable energy resources, like foundation systems for wind turbines, solar farms and hydrogen plants, integration of ground source heat exchangers in building foundations, rock drilling and fracturing in enhanced geothermal systems.
3. Greater complexity of work
While there are multiple factors contributing to an overall increase of land development and construction projects in Australia, it is important to note that the geotechnical complexity of these projects have also increased. This is driving demand, particularly for more experienced engineers.
Larger cities in Australia continue to expand beyond the city fringes, and land developments are occurring on sites with challenging ground conditions that have not previously been developed on.
Land value has increased exponentially, and developments are increasingly optimising the available space with, for instance, some complex basements work that require the expertise of experienced engineers.
For example, geotechnical investigations for a proposed development with a deep basement would typically require deep bore holes, complex analyses and numerical modelling for its design and ongoing inspections and testing during its construction to ensure the suitable design and construction of its retention and foundation systems.
4. COVID-19 (skills shortage)
During the almost two-year period of Australian borders closure during the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry has suffered from a skills shortage.
This was exacerbated by larger construction companies that deployed engineers around the world to staff their big offshore projects. Of course, with closed borders, skilled engineers from overseas were also prevented from travelling to Australia for onshore projects.
How do you become a Geotechnical Engineer?
A geotechnical engineer must complete a bachelor’s degree first. The pathway for most university institutions is to complete a Bachelor of Engineering in Civil Engineering and to major in Geotechnical Engineering. A Bachelor of Geology may also be considered as an academic pathway.
It can also be advantageous for students approaching the completion of their bachelor’s degree to gain an understanding of geotechnics by undertaking jobs that will provide exposure to the industry, such as geotechnical laboratory technicians.