Mr. President, this afternoon the Senate will resume consideration of the Military Construction and Department of Veterans Affairs appropriations bill. This critical legislation will provide full funding for veterans health care and other essential VA services.

Last week, Mr. President, as I am sure you and many of my colleagues did, I had the opportunity to meet with veterans around my State, really for 2 days, and I came back to Washington with a renewed commitment to provide our Nation’s veterans with full support and the benefits they so clearly deserve.

Passing this VA appropriations bill is an important step toward fulfilling the promise we make to our veterans when they enlist: that we will take care of them when they return home. I figure, when they signed up for war there was no waiting line, so when they come home to the United States of America and they need a job or they need health care or they need any type of help from this government, there should not be a waiting line.

But funding the VA's health care system—as we are doing this week—and other existing veterans programs is only part of fulfilling that promise. Another critical component of fulfilling that promise is helping our newest generation of veterans make the difficult transition from military to civilian life—and what a difficult transition it is. New figures have recently come out that show that for post-9/11 veterans, their unemployment in October was 11.6 percent—significantly above the national average. But, like many of the national unemployment rate statistics, this statistic conceals the true scope of the problem. Here is the number to remember: 18. Eighteen percent of veterans who left the military in the past 1 to 3 years are unemployed, according to a 2008 Department of Veterans Affairs employment survey. Of those veterans who have found work, 25 percent earn less than $21,800 per year and only 58 percent of veterans who are employed have been able to find work in the private sector.

These are the people whom I saw when I was at home. One of the things that came to my attention was that a number of them would choose, if they could, to pursue apprenticeships. A lot of them want to go to college for 2-year or 4-year degrees. We have large numbers of returning soldiers in college in Minnesota. One of the things I found from visiting some of our technical colleges is that a number of them would like to choose to pursue a different way to find a job.

A recent VA survey of private sector employers found there is a perception that serv ice mem bers do not perform duties within tightly defined skill sets. The study concluded there should be a greater emphasis placed on business and professional training of veterans coupled with increased efforts to match their skills with available jobs. That is why I introduced bipartisan legislation last week, joined by Senator Johanns of Nebraska and Senator Murray of Washington, to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans obtain the training and experience necessary for full-time employment by allowing them to use their post-9/11 GI bill benefits for job training and apprenticeship programs.

As my colleagues know, last year, under the leadership of Senator Webb, we passed into law the Post-9/11 Veterans'  Educational Assistance Act, which will provide the men and women who served on active duty since September 11, 2001, with comprehensive educational benefits similar to those World War II veterans received. While I believe there is no greater investment we can make in the future of our veterans than granting them the chance to pursue the higher education of their choosing, I also believe we must not limit veterans’ opportunities to only the pursuit of academic degrees. Not every returning soldier chooses to go to college, but they still want a job. Job training, from pipefitting to law enforcement, should also be covered by the GI bill.

Our legislation, the Post-9/11 Veterans’ Job Training Act, would allow veterans who wish to enter the workforce immediately rather than pursuing an academic degree to use their post-9/11 GI bill benefits to obtain critical training and job skills.

Specifically, veterans enrolled in an on-the-job training or apprenticeship program could use their benefits to pay for a percentage of their monthly housing costs, which would decline over a period of months; certification and testing fees; relocation and travel expenses; and tutoring costs. We put these things together based on our discussion with veterans across the country to see what their exact needs were to make it easier for them to go through the pipefitting apprenticeship programs and others that land them in the workforce more immediately.

In order to qualify under this legislation, veterans must be enrolled in programs that have been approved by their State’s accrediting agency. As under the old GI bill, veterans can also receive a salary from their employer during this training. This bill will restore the same eligibility and benefits for job training and apprenticeship programs that were available to veterans under the Montgomery GI bill, but are no longer available under the post-9/11 GI bill.

I talked to Senator Webb and I know there were some reasons this got changed. He is, in fact, supportive of including this, because we have seen this skyrocketing unemployment rate, in part because of the economy, and we want to find every opportunity we can for our veterans to find work.

According to the VA, up to 10 percent of veterans use their Montgomery GI bill benefits for education other than college or graduate school, including for on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs. Through this legislation, post-9/11 veterans will be able to use their expanded benefits for the very same purposes. In Minnesota alone, there are over 50 such programs currently providing training and employment opportunities to veterans, including jobs in law enforcement, construction, engineering, and education.

I was at one of these institutions in Minneapolis this last week and met with some of our veterans, some of whom have done multiple tours in Iraq and one who was leaving in a few months, and they found it very helpful to return to these apprenticeship programs—some of which involve incredibly complex subjects—offering them the opportunity to learn those trades, and this will greatly help them so they can better afford these programs. By applying the new GI bill benefits they have earned toward these programs, veterans can acquire the skills and experience they need for success in the civilian workforce.

Last week, President Obama signed an Executive order creating a Council on Veterans Employment and directing each Federal agency and department to establish an office to focus on the hiring of veterans. Like the President, I am committed to ensuring that veterans have a path to stable employment when they leave the military.

One other piece of legislation I wish to mention, because I am hopeful it will be included in our health care reform, is the Veterans to Paramedics Transition Act which I introduced along with Senator Enzi. It helps returning veterans with medical training to pursue further education as paramedics. One of the things I found in our State was that in rural areas of the country—rural areas of Minnesota, rural areas of Virginia, rural areas in Wyoming—there are not enough paramedics. Here we have these returning soldiers who are trained in this area, but for them to have to move again and to go through an entire 2 years of training can be very difficult. The idea is not to say no training is needed but to simply give them some credit; set up rules to make it easy for colleges to give them credit for that on-the-job training they had as paramedics in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves two problems: the problem of returning veterans who don’t have jobs, and the problem of the lack of paramedics in the rural areas. So we are very hopeful, with the help of Senator Enzi and Senator Harkin, that we will be able to get this bill on the health care reform bill.

I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass not just the Veterans to Paramedics Act but also this bill we introduced last week to make it easier for veterans, when they come home—our soldiers—to choose if they want to go to a pipefitting program or to go to a law enforcement program. For those veterans, there will probably be 10 percent of them who don’t feel at that moment that they want to pursue an academic degree, but they need a job.

Thank you, Mr. President.