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Tunnelling operatives build the underground tunnels needed for services such as rail lines and water works.

Average salaries are in the region of £14,000.00 to £22,000.00. Salaries will vary depending on location / employer

Career Profile

Tunnelling operatives build the underground tunnels needed for services such as rail lines and water works. There are a number of specialised jobs in a tunnelling team, from operating large diameter tunnel boring machines to working as a back-up operative. They are classed as civil engineering specialisms.



An important part of the job is making safety inspections of the site when the construction work is underway. Operatives also use computers with construction management software to help keep the work running smoothly. They keep a check on quality and costs (avoiding wasted materials) and make sure the project stays within the rules and regulations.

Most tunnellers start out working in the pit bottom removing earth, rock and other waste materials before becoming qualified.

Tunnelling operatives have to be able to work in a confined environment for long periods of time, as some tunnels are several kilometres long. So they need to be comfortable working underground in small spaces. 

Typical duties include

  • Preparing the site for tunnelling work
  • Organising the delivery and storage of all the equipment
  • Ensuring the correct materials are available for the team to start work

Hours & Salary

  • Newly trained Tunnelling Operatives can earn in the region of £14,472 - £20,880
  • Trained with experience Tunnelling Operatives can earn in the region of £19,776 - £24,972
  • Senior / Master Crafts Tunnelling Operatives can earn in the region of £25,000+
  • Salaries typically range depending on location and level of responsibility
  • Salaries and career options improve with chartered status.

Learn more about construction careers – and some of the misconceptions surrounding them – with our Mythbusters

You can also take our Personality Quiz to find out which construction career is right for you.

Case Study

Jack Blackburn is a tunnelling operative for Costain on civil engineering and other construction projects.

Why a career in tunnelling?

I found details about this career online. It was an excellent opportunity to learn a trade with the possibility of progressing into other areas of the construction industry. I applied for the job online and was invited to attend an interview for the position. I like to keep very active and in this job you don’t sit down very much. You’re kept busy working and that suits me. The only thing I don’t like is wearing long sleeves and trousers in the heat for health and safety.

What do you do?

As an apprentice tunnelling technician, I’m getting work experience in a number of areas. One day I could be working to support my work mates at the pit top and pit bottom, another day I could be assisting with the tunnel boring machine (TBM) in the tunnel.

What skills are you learning?

I’ve developed a number of new skills. I now have a very good understanding of the potential dangers you may come across when working on site. I’ve also had training in the use of power tools and am acquiring the skills to be a slinger/signaller.

Proudest career moment?

Being there to help when the tunnel boring machine broke through at Wimbledon Shaft, which is a National Grid Cable tunnel.

Where do you want your career to take you?

I hope to be in a position of responsibility or a construction management role, making decisions and helping others.

Any advice about joining your industry?

If you are happy with working hard and not afraid of manual labour, then go for it. Construction is a fantastic industry where you can gain skills for life and you able to achieve a real sense of job satisfaction. You can never stop learning either. There are so many different career routes to go down. With the right attitude and work ethic you should take full advantage of any chance to work in the industry.


Project sponsor Nick Butler works for Thames Tideway Tunnel Limited

What do you do?

I challenge items of design and construction, organise changes and enable the delivery managers to do their jobs so that they can allow the contractors to efficiently do their jobs. I wanted a fresh challenge and enjoy working on major tunnelling projects. This was a senior role and a natural progression from previous tunnelling project manager roles.

What do you like most?

The fact that ultimately you are working to provide a better environment for everyone. There is no single day that I can predict what is going to happen. Every day is different and that is exciting. There is a large responsibility to manage many risks, which is great for people who want responsibility.

What skills do you need?

Communication is the key. It’s important not to overreact or panic, particularly when the project faces large challenges. Any commitment that you give needs to be delivered on or else you lose people’s trust. And when trust is lost, the role is very hard indeed!

Proudest career moment? 

Seeing thousands of people using assets that I have played a major part in constructing. It is very gratifying and tangible. My role on Lee Tunnel has given me the greatest satisfaction as many professionals said that it was nearly impossible to build but my team and I did it.

Big ambition?

Hopefully, being the lead on a major tunnelling project somewhere in the UK.

Advice about joining your industry?

That there are lots of opportunities and construction jobs, so don’t just think it's digging holes!

Qualifications & Training

There are no set qualifications for becoming a tunnelling operative, but it helps to have GCSEs or Standard Grades in Maths and English or their equivalents such as BTEC, Welsh Baccalaureate, WJEC in Construction or Standard Grades/Scottish National 4 or 5s.

Employers may be more interested in whether you have on site experience as a labourer before moving you on to becoming qualified in tunnelling through an apprenticeship or college course.  

Many choose to do an apprenticeship as a way in.  To search for apprenticeship vacancies in your area, visit the government's vacancy matching site, or in Wales, Careers Wales. In Scotland visit Skills Development Scotland.

For further information see the British Tunnelling Society website.   

Want to find out more?

Try our Matching Service for work experience opportunities in your local area, with new opportunities being added on a regular basis. 

Looking for a vacancy?

Here are some construction vacancy websites you may find useful: 

Total Jobs

Simply Hired

The number of job vacancies related to your preferred job role may vary daily, as these are external websites. Check regularly to see new opportunities as they are posted.

Career trends and forecasts

1190 additional staff needed

The UK construction industry will need an additional 1190 civil engineering operatives and related occupations (which includes tunnelling operatives) to meet demand every year between 2017 - 2021, according to the latest Construction Skills Network research (LMI). The majority of this demand will be in North West England and Scotland.

Search other careers

Find out more about other roles in the construction industry and what they involve.

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