Math majors are beginning to break away from the pack in the race among students to relate their degrees to future employment. Many are hotly pursued by pinstriped recruiters waving lucrative job offers.
Businesses are gobbling up math experts, spurred on by the computer revolution and a need for ''problem-solvers.'' The demand is growing geometrically, with job offers increasing at a rate of over 10 percent a year by one estimate.
''There is an intense amount of mathematization of whole areas - pharmaceuticals, technical areas - that can be described mathematically with the aid of computers, but can't be handled analytically,'' says Hirsh Cohen, president of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. ''The quantum jump in the way mathematics can be applied has opened up whole new fields.''
The computer is central to industry's increased interest in mathematicians.
''The theoretical side of math continues to grow,'' says Dr. William Leveque, executive director of the American Mathematical Society. ''What is happening is that in many sciences the workers are discovering that sophisticated mathematical tools will help them solve their problems.''
At Boeing, Dr. Paul Ruppert, manager of aerodynamic-methods research, says he has taken to hiring the ''pure guys.'' Pure mathematicians now comprise about 50 percent of his work force, formerly made up almost exclusively of aerodynamicists. The mathematicians use computational aerodynamics to solve equations having to do with air flow.
''In computing airflows we originally hired people in aerodynamics, but we found that to solve the math problems we need mathematicians, of course. A team of mathematicians can pull off more revolutionary breakthroughs.''
Mathematicians at General Motors and Ford use computational models to predict ways in which metal can be shaped into specific designs, as well as forecasting materials and manufacturing costs.
At present there is very little need for math departments at colleges and universities to expand to meet demand. The number of students majoring in math is still quite low. Instead, college are revamping their departments to tailor classes to the needs of industry or other disciplines, such as computer science, or to incorporate new concepts such as discrete math.
Only part of the increased interest in ''number crunchers'' can be attributed to an infatuation with pure mathematics. Much of the demand is spillover from the shortage of computer specialists.
''There is a very strong demand for people able to do programming in industry and commerce and government - more than are being turned out. Since mathematics students tend to have had some programming they are sometimes hired for what is, in essence, a programming job,'' says Dr. Leveque.
At the same time, a math degree in and of itself may not be enough to attract an employer. ''For the most part, the young person who graduates with a degree in mathematics and is attractive to industry is almost always someone who has a strong interest in a related field - statistics, economics, or something like that,'' says Alfred Willcox, executive director Mathematical Association of America.