Jo Rae Wagner (right)

HARLINGEN, Texas - Newsmaker Jo Rae Wagner, president of CTO Inc., spent the last year as president of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-National Association (PHCC). As only the second woman to hold that position, she has strong opinions on women in the industry and workforce challenges in general.

(Mary Garvelink, co-founder of Commercial Design Engineering, Colorado Springs, Colo., was the first woman to hold that title for PHCC.)

According to Wagner, there are definite advantages to being a woman in a male-dominated industry. The main thing is that you stand out in a crowd. “Guys remember you,” she said. “Males are males no matter how we try to change the world.”

Wagner learned the business like many HVAC professionals, in a family business. “When I was growing up, my Dad [Edwin Correll] was a journeyman plumber,” she said. She learned the business from welding and jobsite work, to performing estimates, which she described as “something of interest, though not necessarily a career.”

After moving from California to Texas, Wagner, husband John Wagner, and Correll started their own plumbing and mechanical contracting company in 1972.


Wagner has long been concerned with the quality and numbers of new workers entering the HVAC and plumbing industry. Ten years ago, she convinced the administrator at a local school to start an apprenticeship program.

The industry would seem to be a great place for women to make a good living, she pointed out, instead of taking lower-paying jobs to make ends meet. However, trying to get women to enter the industry has been an uphill battle - a problem because new workers will need to come from somewhere. “We’ll need a million [new employees] in the industry by 2012,” Wagner said, and will probably compete for those workers with other industries. “It’s a problem for the entire workforce, not just HVAC.”

Another frustrating problem in her region, she said, is a rather high dropout rate. “We have 6,000 kids who leave high school every day of the week,” she said. They are not scholastically inclined, but generally no alternative is given. GED programs, she said, do not prepare these potential employees for the workplace. “GEDs have become a good way for kids to escape high school.

“We need to change the educational system,” Wagner said. There are benefits to mechanical trades that aren’t being recognized as viable alternatives by school counselors. “We can keep these jobs at home, and there are no huge student loans to pay to the school their entire lives.”

CTO’s location in the Rio Grande Valley has given it access to a large number of Mexican employees. However, because of the area’s accessibility of Hispanic goods, services, and media, second and third generations of American citizens are not learning as much English as they might in other communities. Wagner is a proponent of English immersion classes for children. She also has started work with the Mayor of Harlingen and the PHCC on workforce development programs.


In addition to her work as president of CTO, Wagner has been very active in both the state and national levels of PHCC, and in state and federal initiatives on behalf of the industry. She was the first woman to serve on the PHCC national board, as well as serving as a board member and president of the American Subcontractors Association (ASA), and a member of the Association of General Contractors (AGC).

In addition, she is the chairman-elect for the Harlingen Waterworks Board and serves on the Harlingen Construction Board of Adjustments and Variances. In the early 1990s, she served for four years on the Texas Workers Compensation Policy Holders Committee. She is a leading member of Independent Plumbers Alliance (IPA), which works in conjunction with Texas State Technical College to provide a quality education for plumbers to achieve their journeyman’s license.

In January 2007, Wagner was honored with a resolution presented in the Texas Senate Chamber by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.

“Ms. Wagner is a fine example for other women to emulate,” said Sen. Lucio. “I am proud to know that she resides in my Senatorial District, and her leadership and dedication to involving more women in the construction industry is indeed admirable.”

- B. Checket-Hanks

The Facts:

Name:Jo Rae Wagner (right)


Company:CTO Inc.

Location:Harlingen, Texas

Notable Quote:“We’ll need a million [new employees] in the industry by 2012. It’s a problem for the entire workforce, not just HVAC.”

Publication date:12/24/2007