A survey of oil and gas companies throughout North America indicates a major pullback underway in the industry as they cut capital spending and reduce hiring in response to low oil prices.

The survey, by human resources company Mercer, indicates 44 per cent plan to cut back on capital spending and 32 per cent will reduce their search for new talent for their companies in 2015.

The results of the survey are a sharp contrast to a year ago in the oil and gas industry, when finding employees with the right skills was a priority and 66 per cent of firms said they were on the lookout for new hires.

"Most organizations in one way or another are looking for reductions in expenses," Graham Dodd, Mercer's energy and natural resources energy leader for Canada, told CBC News.

He said firms are moving from thinking about cuts to putting them into place as they "adjust to the new reality of $45 oil."

In the latest survey, Mercer spoke to 154 companies in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico between Dec. 11, 2014, and Jan. 15, 2015, with about half of respondents operating in Canada.

About one quarter of respondents said it was “too early to tell” if the would make changes in their business strategy because of the plunge in oil prices, which fell from more than $100 US a barrel last fall to $45 last week. Today, oil has bounced upward to close to $50, but analysts have no idea if it will hold its value.

Publicly listed Canadian companies such as Cenovus and Canadian Oil Sands have already announced plans to cut back on capital spending.

Many firms are also studying their staffing levels in response to what could be a long period of weak oil prices, Mercer’s study indicates.

Upstream business hard hit

Canadian firms have been particularly hard hit, with one in five contemplating job cuts. Some Canadian oil sources, including oilsands, are significantly more expensive to develop than conventional oil, and the soaring production of U.S. light oil has cut into Canadian exports to the U.S.

The structure of the Canadian industry, which is concentrated on exploration and production rather than refining, means it is particularly sensitive to falling crude prices, Dodd said.

"For upstream, which is the predominant part of the Canadian industry in those areas of exploration and production, clearly the price at the wellhead is affecting their ability to increase staff and to spend in certain areas. They’ve been most dramatically affected by this," Dodd said.

By contrast, downstream businesses such as refineries are seeing a bit of a boom as consumers and transportation businesses step up demand for oil products.

A whopping 38 per cent of all firms say they are looking for ways to cut costs and considering reductions to sales, general or administrative operating expenses.

About 16 per cent of oil and gas companies say they may have to cut staff and one in five Canadian companies is contemplating cuts, according to Mercer.

Suncor Energy and Royal Dutch Shell are among the firms that have recently announced job cuts.

Holding line on wages

Another 18 per cent plan to freeze or cut compensation or consider the cost effectiveness of their workforce in the wake of lower prices, the survey indicates.

Dodd says he sees Canadian companies taking a lesson from the 2008-2009 downturn, when they laid off workers only to face a critical shortage six months later.

"People are looking at where and how we can hold people more, how can we redeploy people, how can we hold some of our critical talent," he said.

Some increased efficiency can be gained by refining job roles and building skills internally, he said, as the same shortages of skills will persist if oil prices rise again in 18 months.

About seven per cent of companies surveyed are looking at selling off units, auguring a period of consolidation in the oil industry.